If you want to help kids, don’t impose work tests on programs that meet their basic needs.

By Elisa Minoff, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for the Study of Social Policy

Last summer, shortly after the White House directed administrative agencies to limit eligibility to programs that meet families’ most basic needs by expanding work requirements, I sat in a windowless conference room with a dozen other people watching PowerPoint presentations about how to document your search for a job, when to submit that documentation to your Employment Services Specialist, and where to attend workshops on interviewing techniques and other subjects to comply with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) requirements. As I struggled to take notes on all of the meetings and appointments that must be completed before receiving assistance, I stole occasional glances at the adorable newborn two tables down, nestled on her mother’s chest, seemingly oblivious to the hum of the recorded audio and the flashing sides.

TANF is the primary program of cash assistance available to families with low incomes, and it was heralded, when it was established in 1996, for imposing work requirements on parents, threatening to take away their assistance unless they worked for a certain number of hours every week, in an approved activity. Recent proposals for work requirements in food, housing, and medical assistance are modeled on of TANF. We know from decades of research that taking away assistance from families for failing to meet work requirements does not meaningfully increase work or economic security in the long run. But what are the practical implications of work requirements for children and families?

It’s especially important to think through how work requirements affect families with young children. We know that stable and adequate income is especially important for young children’s development, but parents’ need to care for them or difficulty finding quality, affordable child care can limit their ability to work—especially for mothers, who continue to carry the weight of caregiving responsibilities. So what are the practical implications of work requirements for these families? what do they mean for the mother and her newborn baby, sitting in the TANF orientation that summer day?

I was visiting Montgomery County, Maryland to find out. TANF continues to provide real benefits to families in Maryland. While in some states, TANF serves so few families, and provides such minimal benefits, that it is unclear whether it functions as a workable program at all, this is not the case in Maryland. TANF currently serves 39 out of every 100 families with children living in poverty in the state—down from 66 out of every 100 families in 2001, but significantly higher than the current national average of 23 out of every 100 families. Over the years, the state has increased TANF benefits in an attempt to keep up with cost of living, so that the maximum monthly benefit for a parent and one child is now $536.

As I learned from my site visits in Montgomery County, however, the work requirement creates significant hurdles for families with young children to get that assistance in the first place. Consider what was asked of the mother and her newborn child sitting with me through the TANF orientation.

Before attending the orientation, she had applied for assistance and been told to attend the next orientation at ResCare Workforce Services, the private provider that contracts with Montgomery County to ensure TANF applicants and recipients comply with the work requirements. Most likely, she had been told, as I was during my site visits, to arrive early at the orientation, as applicants will not be allowed in if they are more than 15 minutes late, and to arrange child care, as the orientation is 4-5 hours long. 

For parents who are applying for TANF and have limited financial resources, however, arranging child care, especially for infants and young children, can be a challenge. They are unlikely to have established formal child care arrangements—in fact, it is the quest for child care assistance that leads some families to apply for TANF in the first place. That leaves them scrambling to find informal care, with family, friends, or neighbors, to cover their time at the TANF orientation. But even if parents are able to find someone to take care of their children for that time, they may feel uncomfortable leaving them with someone who is not familiar with their needs. Anyone who has cared for an infant and perfected the body position and bounce that comforts her most quickly can understand why. This is how babies wind up at TANF orientations.

At the orientation, parents are told that they may be eligible for an exemption from the work requirement if they are caring for a child under 12 months of age. Maryland and 22 other states exempt parents caring for a child under one from the work requirement, and three states exempt parents caring for a child under two. But in Maryland, as in a number of other states, parents can only use this exemption for up to 12 months in their own lifetimes—so if they’ve already used the exemption for 8 months caring for their first child, for example, they can only use it for up to 4 months caring for their second.

Even if a parent with a young child does qualify for an exemption from the work requirements, however, she is still told she should comply with the work requirement until her exemption is approved, which may take days or weeks. If she does not do so, and her exemption is rejected, she will need to begin the application process all over again.

So, even if the mother with an infant qualifies for an exemption from the work requirement, she is told like all other TANF applicants that she must attend four required workshops on subjects ranging from preparing a resume to creating a career pathway; apply for child care assistance; pick up a transportation debit card to cover the costs of traveling to job interviews; meet with her Employment Services Specialist; and search for a job for the remaining hours of the 40-hour work week so she fulfills her work requirement for the 30-day application period. All of these requirements stemming from TANF’s work requirement are on top of the mandate to meet with a county case manager, complete mandatory substance abuse screening, and apply for child support enforcement at the appropriate county office.

During the TANF orientation, parents with young children are told they can have one break from the required application-period job search. While most applicants are told they should conduct their job search on the computers at ResCare, treating the search like a job by arriving in business attire at nine every weekday and leaving at five, parents who need child care assistance are told they can search for work from their homes until their child care assistance is processed. Presumably, parents would be looking for work while also watching their young children—a task any parent knows can be next to impossible. Even if they have the ability to juggle these responsibilities, complying requires a reliable internet connection, and ideally a device that allows them to search job sites and fill out applications more easily than on a smartphone.

Navigating transportation alone to get to and from all of the required appointments and meetings can be overwhelming. For example, a family living in Clarksburg, in northern Montgomery County, must sit on a bus for 50 minutes to access their county office in Germantown—where they can apply for assistance, meet with a case manager and complete a substance abuse screening. To attend any events at ResCare, they would need to take two buses, and it would take them an hour and ten minutes, each way.

If they manage to complete all of these requirements, a parent and a young child will receive $536 in assistance. This comes out to $6,432 a year, well under half the federal poverty threshold for a family of two.

But many families, confronted with the logistical nightmare created by work requirements, likely do not complete the application process. According to administrators in Montgomery County, they receive 200 to 300 applications for TANF every month and approve 80 to 90. They do not track the reasons applications are not approved, but the hoops and hurdles created by work requirements likely play a role.

We do know that work requirements are the top reason families are sanctioned, and their TANF benefits are reduced or eliminated, in Montgomery County. For families with young children who do not qualify for exemptions, this means that their benefits can decline if their child care falls through, or a child gets sick and a parent needs to stay home and care for her and does not submit the proper documentation to get a temporary excuse from the requirement.

Work requirements, in other words, pose enormous hurdles to getting assistance in the first place, as well as challenges for maintaining assistance once it has begun. For parents of young children, the challenges are especially large, and the risks of failure are high. Given these factors, it should be no surprise that a landmark National Academy of Sciences report on child poverty recently concluded that “work requirements are at least as likely to increase as to decrease [child] poverty.”  

If we want to support the development of the adorable newborn I met at the TANF orientation and other young children, we cannot impose work tests on programs that meet their basic needs.

To read more about how work requirements change programs that meet families’ basic needs, see What Do “Work Requirements” Actually Require?



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