An additional $6 billion over five years for child care is a lot even for Congress, but it is not the only number the Senate should study as it considers reauthorizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It should look also at the numbers in studies that show how success rates shoot up, helping people find permanent work with decent wages, if the government begins by making a larger investment in the outcome.
The Economic Policy Institute, for instance, found that single mothers who receive child-care assistance are 40 percent more likely to be employed after two years than those who did not. Yet the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that by 2008 the new rules proposed by the House would cause states to lose 361,000 places even without counting increased work requirements.
Currently, the $2.7 billion in child-care money provides assistance only to 1 of every 7 eligible children. In Maine, where approximately 13,500 families qualify for TANF, these numbers add up to significant problems for families trying to get off TANF and move toward independence.
The connection between good child care and poor parents training for and keeping jobs should be clear enough, but in the punitive atmosphere that surrounds welfare reform, what is obvious is often ignored. For instance, the House version of the TANF bill fails to adequately account for increasing child-care costs, even as it demands that parents work more hours. It also fails to recognize that education does more to ensure someone stays off welfare than does the amount of time punched on a clock at a low-level job.
Fortunately, the Senate can improve on these failures through the acronymically ambitious, Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) Act, sponsored, among others, by Sen. Olympia Snowe and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins and including a broad, bipartisan coalition in the Senate. It raises child-care funding by the $6 billion, paid for through fees collected on imported goods, and it focuses, properly, on preparing TANF recipients for meaningful, long-term employment. This federal support at a time of state-budget crisis is especially important – last year, the General Accounting Office found that states could offer temporary child-care assistance to fewer than half the families leaving TANF that had applied for the help. Though state budgets are slightly better this year, few states are extending benefits.
The PRIDE Act also is important because it includes education provisions similar to Maine’s successful Parents as Scholars program, which subsidizes education after high school. A 2002 study by Maine Equal Justice Partners showed that Parents as Scholars graduates earned a median wage of $11.71 an hour, compared with a median wage of $7.50 an hour for former welfare recipients in Maine without degrees. Better, nearly all graduates reported receiving benefit packages through their employers, suggesting they were in the sort of jobs that can turn into careers. Nearly 90 percent of parents who went through the program left welfare and never returned.
Reauthorizing welfare has been on the congressional calendar for years, but a lack of agreement keeps delaying it. A strong vote in the Senate for the reforms in the PRIDE Act would tell negotiators with the House that they must rethink the punitive policies they passed. TANF recipients – and the states – would be much better off under this legislation.