Welfare Reform Squandered

Progressives have plenty of unfinished business to bemoan now that they have lost control of the House. Conservative politicians, driven by Tea Party fervor, have already declared their opposition to big-ticket items like health-care reform (much of it to be finalized and funded over the next few years) and comprehensive climate-change legislation (which moderates and conservatives successfully stalled even when Democrats had big majorities). That doesn't even count legislative priorities, like repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which seemed like safe bets before the election and are now compromised.

To that list, add another item, one that's flown under the radar of many progressives: undoing Bush-era damage to anti-poverty programs.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program for low-income families formerly known as welfare, is up for reauthorization in 2011. During the Bush administration, policy-makers co-opted TANF programs -- which had been aimed primarily at struggling single mothers -- to promote culture-war causes like marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood. Thus, "healthy marriage" initiatives got $150 million that should have gone to social services that would help both mothers and fathers provide for their children. These programs are set to expire next year, and progressive groups had hoped President Barack Obama would end them entirely. But it's clear one holdover will remain with support from Obama: responsible fatherhood initiatives.

Although Obama's rhetoric on responsible fatherhood has often seemed conservative, he has proposed subtle but significant improvements to TANF, including eliminating marriage initiatives as they currently exist. His budget proposal, which hasn't passed, established similar-sounding programs to promote healthy relationships and responsible fatherhood, but his proposed changes would focus on acknowledging that many low-income fathers aren't unwilling to pay child support or participate in child-rearing but are unable to do so because they face barriers to employment, stable housing, or re-entering society after lengthy incarcerations.

However, for many women's rights groups, there is a fine line between programs that provide social services to fathers and those that promote conservative, marriage-based solutions. Bush-administration-era fatherhood and marriage programs denigrate single motherhood, because they seem to say women are inadequate parents. Moreover, there are finite resources for low-income families, and fatherhood-focused programs risk robbing low-income women and children of welfare services, which are already inadequately funded.

Until recently, progressive groups that promote fatherhood initiatives have co-existed in an uneasy peace with women's rights groups. But the two have found common ground. "If we're looking at low-income families, those families do include men," Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, said at an October event sponsored by the Center for American Progress aimed at bridging the gap between anti-poverty advocates and women's rights groups. "They may not show up on documents or papers or forms, or in houses ... but they do exist; they're part of families. And there are ways that we need to support them being part of families, and encourage it."

The meeting, held a few weeks before the election, was based around a new report from Boggess and CAP, which is among the first to argue that responsible fatherhood is an issue about which women's rights advocates should be concerned. Joan Entmacher, a vice president of the National Women's Law Center, said she had come to a similar conclusion after working for years with low-income women and asking them what the noncustodial fathers of their children needed. "One of the answers we got back frequently was, 'Help him get a job,'" Entmacher told the CAP crowd. The low-income women wanted not only social services for men but an end to the draconian practice in many states of taking money from child-support payments to recoup spending on welfare. Instead, the women said, all of the money men are ordered to pay should be sent to the children themselves.

The Democrats' loss of the House, however, could doom efforts to change these programs through TANF reauthorization. Groups who advocate for the kind of changes Obama wants are wary of reopening the act in a Congress hostile to spending on social programs. Conservatives opposed programs like the TANF emergency fund in the stimulus package that helped pay for the salaries of low-income workers. Even Democrats have raided programs like food-stamp benefits to offset emergency spending in other areas, like the childhood-nutrition bill that is a priority for First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood-obesity.

Bringing up changes to TANF during reauthorization will highlight changes that hadn't necessarily been noticed by conservatives. "I think [Obama] was hiding a lot of poverty policy and race policy in the fatherhood legislation," Boggess said when I spoke with her after the election. "It's going to be harder now to pass it under people's nose without them paying the kind of attention that can get it killed or watered down." It may be counterintuitive, but the best hope in the short term for ultimately changing TANF programs could be a continuing resolution that simply extends TANF as it exists now. It might delay the changes progressives want to make, but it could ward off the changes they don't want to see.

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