The House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means focused on the issue of family poverty last week. They passed three pieces of legislation and are scheduled to consider two more at a future date that aim to improve the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. TANF is the country’s main cash assistance program for poor families and was scheduled for reauthorization in 2010, but has been operating on continuing resolutions since.
The House Committee’s markup comes at a time when critics of TANF have become increasingly vocal. Even before authors Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer argued that TANF is essential non-existent in their book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, critics were sounding alarms about the shrinking caseloads and TANF’s apparent inability to respond to recessions.
The critics are not entirely wrong as Robert VerBruggen persuasively argued last March. But they are not correct either. TANF has benefited a large number of families and most are better off than they would have been had TANF not existed. Some argue that something better could have been put in place instead of TANF, but that is mere speculation. TANF largely achieved what it set out to do – it reduced dependence on cash welfare, increased work, and lowered poverty for those directly affected by it.