The rules of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) were changed under George W. Bush in 2006. Under the new rules people could only be paid TANF payments for two years while in an...

The rules of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) were changed under George W. Bush in 2006. Under the new rules people could only be paid TANF payments for two years while in an educational program . If getting people out of poverty is one of the goals of TANF, what are some of the problems you see with that rule?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with any policy implementation decision, there can be points to be made that affirm it or raise question about it.  I think that one of the critical aspects of the President's approach to the changes authorized in TANF came from an ideological perspective.  Many believe that a shift took place in American government regarding TANF and the entire concept of government assistance in the mid- 2000s.  This shift in perception was one whereby government assitance was not seen as a way to help people as much as a wedge issue in which political gain was acquired through the targeting of those who are the most desperate in our society:

Several observers commented that both federal signals and state politics contribute to reduced welfare caseloads and funding. Caseload reduction has become “a religion,” in the words of one participant, even though smaller caseloads do not necessarily mean fewer families living in poverty....In contrast, TANF focuses on accounting and penalties, and states try to divert eligible families from the rolls. Leaders
see political gain in attacking welfare, not in protecting it, according to one participant. Americans expect people to work, and despite TANF’s focus on work, the program continues to carry a stigma.
The argument can be made that the President's approach to the changes in TANF reflected this political climate.  It was one in which "stigma" was attached to individual assistance from governmental agencies, thereby limiting it to those enrolled in educational initiatives.
It is in this light where changes in the TANF legislation were enacted. These modifications focused on the "temporary" aspect of TANF legislation.  Accordingly, the proponents of the President's changes made the argument that reducing payments for two years while enrolled in an educational program necessitates the understanding of governmental assistance as temporary.  However, I think that a couple of problems emerge under this construction.  The first is that the suspension of assistance fails to take into account that the costs of educational programs continue to rise.  By definition, individuals who are enrolled in educational programs are limited in the amount of time they can work to generate income.  The assistance given to them is to help sustain both they and their studies.  In limiting this time to two years, there is a failure to address how costs of educational programs continue to increase and skyrocket.  Individuals who are receiving assistance are able to use some of this money to help defray the continual increase of cost in their educational plans.  In suspending benefits after two years, individuals receiving assistance would have had to make some very tough choices, including stopping their education because of rising costs.  The change fails to account for this reality.  As the subtext of the question correctly points out, the idea of seeking individuals to get out of poverty is severely undercut when educational opportunities have to be put aside because of rising costs.
I believe that the other issue that emerges is more of a  philosophical approach.  If the end goal is to help individuals emerge from poverty, then there has to be an acknowledgement that the condition of poverty is a structural one.  Individuals do not choose to be impoverished.  No one chooses to live in shelters, to live out of automobiles, and no one would choose to see their children cry out of hunger.  These are structural realities that emerge out of a free market system.  Globalization  has added to this in its altering the dynamic of finding work, as manufacturing and industrial positions are being sent overseas.  This has demanded the need for educational initiatives to help more people develop greater ideas that can generate profit.   The idea that there is an expectation of work is a needed one.  However, when leaders are able to generate political gain out of the social stigma of not being able to find work,  and pass legislation in accordance to that stigma, poverty is increased.  It is not reduced.  One really has to wonder about the desire to pull individuals out of poverty when the Bush administration authorized government bailouts of corporations and leaders of industry during the same time period.  The economic reality that hit millions of Americans also hurt many of American banks and businesses.  The former were told to "be strong" and "stand on their own two feet," while the nation's corporate interests experienced a form of welfare that ideologically moved the nation back to "the Great Society."  In the end, I think that this perspective has to be evaluated in the President's actions.  While no one can deny that the need to work and the "temporary" notion of government assistance are worthy realities, the political machinations behind such moves and the lack of acknowledgement of the structure of poverty must also be addressed.