In an economic downturn, the demand for public assistance grows. Local and state governments face increased enrollment in programs to help low-income individuals.
The mission of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), often referred to as “welfare,” is to provide temporary financial assistance to low-income Texans for food, clothing, housing, and other basic needs. As more Texans become eligible for public assistance, lawmakers need to scrutinize every dollar we spend in order to free up funds for those who truly need them. And we must ensure that recipients of public funds exercise personal responsibility.
The next legislative session convenes in January, and one of my goals is to reform this program to ensure that we live up to our responsibility to put recipients on a path to self-sufficiency. That means ensuring that they are actively seeking employment or participating in job training programs.
The federal government allows exemptions from TANF employment requirements if a recipient cares for a disabled family member; if the individual is caring for a child under age 1; and if the recipient is a child. Texas currently allows exemptions for more than the three recognized by federal law, and there may be potential next session to scale those back.
We also need to enact welfare reforms that ensure that individuals receiving state benefits are drug-free. Several states have considered legislation requiring drug testing for TANF applicants, using a screening process to determine whether they are at risk for drug use. We could also strengthen the screening requirements for individuals whose benefits are being restored following a drug conviction.
The TANF program was designed to provide temporary relief to families who are in need of our help. Our limited tax dollars should not be used to support unhealthy or illegal habits. We need to evaluate policies of the ten states which have passed laws banning the use of cash benefits for alcohol, gambling, tobacco, or other illegal uses.
About 115,000 Texans are enrolled in TANF at a cost of more than $8 million a month. In order to be good stewards of those tax dollars, welfare reform should be a priority of the next Legislature.
I recognize the need to help struggling families through tough times. And the taxpayers who fund welfare services deserve to know that their dollars are being invested where they are sincerely needed.
Senator Jane Nelson represents District 12, including portions of Tarrant and Denton Counties. She is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services.