Joe Valentine is the Director of Contra Costa County’s Employment and Human Services Department and is Chair of the First 5 Contra Costa Commission.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the TANF program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) being signed into law by President Clinton. TANF, known as CalWORKS in California, was built on the premise that welfare should only be temporary, that it was preferable for parents of children to work, and that jobs were available if people would only look for them. In the boom years of the 90s, this policy choice proved to be moderately successful. TANF caseloads began to drop everywhere as parents were able to find jobs.

Then came the Great Recession. Poverty rates climbed dramatically, especially child poverty rates. Child poverty in California alone grew from 18.1% in 2006 to 21% in 2009, and the increase in child poverty nationally followed a similar pattern. Rising unemployment pushed hundreds of thousands of families into poverty overnight.

One of the earliest indicators of this sudden rise in poverty was escalating Food Stamp caseloads (known as SNAP at the federal level and as CalFRESH in California). In Contra Costa County, CalFRESH caseloads grew from 16,000 in 2008 to over 30,000 as of June of this year. But while the SNAP program was able to respond to the rising need for economic support, TANF did not. States actually cut back their support for TANF in response to their own declining revenues. California reduced welfare benefits back to the actual dollar levels of 20 years ago, imposed more stringent time limits and a host of other new requirements, and cut back support for child care.

The glaring failure of TANF to respond to the needs of families during an economic downturn has renewed debate about its fundamental design and assumptions. With TANF up for re-authorization this year, this debate is timely. One approach is to make TANF more “counter-cyclical”- similar to the SNAP program. An excellent summary of this approach was recently given by Gordon Berlin, Executive Director of MDRC, in testimony to Congress, “A Safety Net Built Around Work – When There Is No Work.”

Berlin argues that “A more responsive welfare program would promote work and self-sufficiency in good times while expanding to provide support for the nation’s poorest citizens in difficult economic times.” He suggested to Congress that we continue the TANF Emergency Fund that was established as part of the Recovery Act to provide the additional financial support needed by families. As a way of preserving the goal of accountability, he suggested substituting a requirement for TANF recipients to actively participate in education and training if jobs are not available, or, if this was not acceptable, to create public jobs. It’s unlikely that there would be enough public and political support for either approach, even though creating public jobs proved to be a successful strategy the last time our county experienced a severe economic crisis.

What’s left then? If we continue to insist that TANF be seen as only a temporary bridge to jobs then we have to be willing to accept that there are three factors that need to be in place to make such an approach work: 1) adequate education and training to ensure job seekers have the necessary skills for jobs; 2) adequate work supports to supplement low wage levels such as the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC], Health Care, and Child Care; and, 3) jobs!

The infrastructure to provide adequate training and education is already in place. In Contra Costa County, our Workforce Development Board leverages federal, state, and competitive grant funding to support a dynamic system of job training and worker preparation geared to helping both youth and adults obtain the job skills that are needed both now and in the future. The level of funding for this system falls far short of the need of course, and congressional deficit reduction actions may further diminish the level of funding support, but the system and infrastructure is in place.

Similarly, Health Care Reform, when fully implemented, has the potential to remove what has traditionally been one of the major barriers to parents successfully making the transition from welfare to work. We are fortunate in Contra Costa County that our Health Services Department is on the leading edge of county health departments in implementing it. The Earned Income Tax Credit continues to be one of the most effective strategies for supplementing the income of low income working families that exist, and Contra Costa’s annual “Earn It, Keep It, Save It” campaign has helped local families access millions of dollars in support.

Then there is child care. Although we have a strong system of child care and early childhood education providers in Contra Costa, the 2011-2012 state budget made a series of significant cuts to both reimbursement levels and eligibility, and the looming trigger cuts will reduce child care support even further.

And what about the jobs themselves? If we continue to insist that TANF remain a time limited bridge to jobs, in bad times as well as good, then we need to take responsibility to help local economies “grow” the necessary level of jobs that would be needed. Health and Social Service organizations need to join hands with Economic Development Organizations to boost the vitality of local economies and make sure that new jobs and economic opportunities target those who need them the most.

If we are not willing to provide more support to families during times of economic downturn, nor to adequately fund the programs that would help them obtain jobs and supplement their wage levels, then we are making a policy choice to allow millions of additional children to suffer economic deprivation with all of the disastrous long-term consequences both for themselves and the community that will result.

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