TANF Work Requirements: A Cautionary Case Study in Virginia
Virginia’s experience with work requirements in the cash assistance program for low-income families with children shows some of the challenges of trying to use work requirements to move families with significant barriers to self-sufficiency. The Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare (VIEW) began in 1995 as part of Virginia’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and is now part of Virginia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. As of the 2016 fiscal year, most adults with TANF participated in work activities and many obtained employment. However, incomes for TANF recipients who obtained employment were extremely low, averaging just $1,192 per month, which falls below a poverty-level income for a family with just one child.
And while some tout the falling number of Virginia families who are receiving cash assistance through TANF as an example of the success of work requirements, the number of Virginia children living in poverty — and even deep poverty — has not seen the same drop. In the early 1990s before the state and national “welfare reform” initiatives, there were 227,000 poor children and 98,000 deeply poor children in Virginia, and 123,000 Virginia children lived in families that received cash assistance. As of the mid-2010s, there were slightly more poor children (236,000) and deeply poor children (102,000) than in the early 1990s, but just 46,000 lived in families that received cash assistance. As a result, there are now far more children living in deep poverty in Virginia than there are children whose families are receiving cash assistance to help keep a roof overhead, buy clothing and school supplies, and maybe even buy the children birthday gifts. Work requirements and other restrictions to the cash assistance program may have reduced the number of families receiving help, but it hasn’t reduced the number of children living in poverty. The availability of work at above-poverty wages has far more influence, as can be seen in the impact of economic recessions on child poverty.