In the Public Interest

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which is slated to expire in August and requires reauthorization.

The most important aspect of the act is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), viewed by many as "the end of welfare as we know it." TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which provided funds to parents--usually women--who were almost always poor, had young children and had no visible help in providing for their care. Essentially, funds were tied to family size, leading critics to believe that women had out-of-marriage children for the increased aid.

TANF is a federally funded, state-operated program designed to get able-bodied recipients, primarily women, to work. (The Office of Civil Rights issued an opinion in 1999 that persons with disabilities were TANF-eligible also.) The program also stipulates that recipients could not receive program benefits after five years, although there were some provisions for states to provide exceptions and extensions. To support people's job-seeking activities and initial employment, the program provided continued Medicaid benefits and child care.

In the first years of TANF, welfare caseloads have decreased significantly, dropping from a high of about 13 million in 1996 to about 5.5 million recipients in 2001. It should be noted, however, that those years also coincide with an unprecedented economic boom in the United States, creating a workers' market.

Those left behind

Arguably, TANF has been successful in reducing the number of people receiving welfare benefits. But it should be pointed out that new, relatively unskilled workers were hired to perform the lowest-paying jobs for which they were suited by training and experience.

As we look toward the reauthorization of TANF, those truly left behind and likely at risk are people who are unable to benefit from job training, or those unable to work because of problems associated with mental health and substance abuse. In almost every state, the most difficult, perhaps most misunderstood group are people who experience ongoing mental and emotional disorders. While there are many disorders, depression is a particular area of concern because it is so prevalent among women, even more so among low-income and poor women who are possibly vulnerable to TANF requirements.

And yet, in spite of the prevalence of depressive disorders, they are often overlooked or underreported by state workers, employers and recipients themselves. On the one hand, depression can cause recipients to appear uncaring, slow, inattentive. Those symptoms can, of course, cause them to be seen not as having mental problems, but of fitting the stereotype of poor people, especially so if the woman is a person of color. On the other hand, the person may recognize her difficulties, but not seek help because of embarrassment or fear of being stigmatized. When the depression or other mental health disorder is associated with substance abuse, the personal and social issues are compounded.

TANF II

The reauthorization of TANF is not likely to be an uneventful process. Because it has not eliminated "welfare as we know it," there are many ideas of how to improve it. Some would advocate TANF II have a "marriage broker" function, believing that if these women had husbands, their children would have fathers, and those families would be lifted out of poverty. Other advocates believe that TANF should include strong antipoverty measures, permitting marriage and family to occur as personal choice, not as a mandate.

APA recommendations for TANF are focused on issues in which psychologists could make contributions that would benefit the welfare system and the recipients. They call for the program to consider:

  • Improving training for front-line caseworkers to provide early recognition and referral to mental health professionals for persons with mental and emotional disorders.

  • Exploring how domestic and family violence may make it difficult for women to participate in work and work-related programs. APA also recommends that women with an established history of abuse receive special consideration in the reauthorization.

  • Integrating mental health and substance treatment resources and services into employment efforts.