When 1996 welfare reform turned Aid to Families with Dependent Children into Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Congress gave the program four goals. The fourth: “Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.” Today’s funding for it: 1 percent.
A 1999 TANF funding guide for states gave the reason for that goal. Poor single mothers with children dominated TANF roles: “Historically … fathers have found limited employment opportunities, and welfare rules have worked to discourage family formation and fuller involvement of these fathers in the lives of their children.”
The argument is that good-intentioned welfare laws to help low-skilled single or battered mothers simultaneously relaxed the responsibility of fathers, contributing to the breakdown of the family. Between 2007 and 2009, the Heritage Foundation found 71 percent of poor families with children did not include married parents. Overall, just 6.8 percent of married, two-parent families had poor children over that same time period.
While states have great freedom in how they spend TANF money, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended options to fulfill the marriage-supporting goal:
“Parenting skills training, premarital and marriage counseling, and mediation services; activities to promote parental access and visitation; job placement and training services for noncustodial parents; initiatives to promote responsible fatherhood and increase the capacity of fathers to provide emotional and financial support for their children; and crisis or intervention services.”
But according to TANF spending reports, only about half of states spend money each year to support two-parent families—just 1 percent of more than $31 billion in 2012. Much of that came from Virginia and Louisiana, which spent 16 and 38 percent of their budgets on family-building programs. TANF allows such a disparity because it’s grant-based, and states can spend as they please among the four goals, provided participants meet work requirements.
Opinions about whether these programs work or not differ depending on who you talk to, and some argue the best way to help families is to produce stable financial situations, which reduce conflict. There’s something to be said for that, but family finances weren’t all that rosy when 95 percent of children had married parents in 1960. Now, fewer than 60 percent of children are born to married parents. Government isn’t in the business of shotgun weddings and can’t substitute for godly examples. But marriage is a proven catalyst for financial stability.
TANF isn’t the only government initiative funding family-promotion programs. President George W. Bush’s 2005 Deficit Reduction Act adjusted TANF work requirements and allotted an additional $150 million to encouraging healthy marriages and fatherhood. About 16 of the 58 organizations getting a slice of the $60 million in grants to promote healthy marriages are faith-based.
These grants are not reported with TANF spending. But the lack of funding for marriage-building programs isn’t the only thing that sticks out from TANF’s financial records. Since 1996, the amount states allot to basic needs has dropped from 73 to 28.6 percent. In roughly 35 states, monthly TANF basic assistance for a family of three is less than food stamps. It’s not the safety net it used to be, as food stamp rolls now total more than 10 times the number of people getting TANF assistance. The poor have found other welfare sources, which usually do little more to promote healthy families than put Band-Aids on financial wounds.