To End Poverty, Expand Opportunity
By Rep. Kristi Noem
July 10, 2015
More than 1,000 South Dakotans, including nearly 300 children, were homeless at some point last year, according to a recent report by the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless. What is perhaps more shocking is that three of the five lowest-income counties in the country are located in our state. For many impacted by poverty, it’s been a challenge that has been passed from one generation to the next. I want to help end that cycle.
Fundamentally, any conversation about ending poverty must begin with a conversation about expanding opportunity. Too often, federal programs fail in this respect. I believe they need to do more than just help folks avoid the worst hardships; they must also empower people to build a successful career. Earlier this month, I took steps toward such a goal.
On July 7, I introduced legislation to help reform the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program – or TANF. By definition, this is a program designed to help struggling families achieve self-sufficiency and financial independence, but it isn’t working and loopholes let some states get away with ineffective spending.
TANF requires states to make sure 50 percent of program recipients participate in work-related activities, such as working, searching for a job, or training for one. If states spend more than the federal government requires, the 50 percent threshold can be decreased. In extreme cases, it can be decreased to zero. Therein lies the loophole.
Some states are counting third-party spending as “state spending” and driving their apparent investments to artificially high levels. As a result, they don’t need as many TANF recipients to be engaged in work-related activities. Of note, South Dakota does not game the system in this way; we now need other states to follow our example.
The practice completely dilutes the integrity of TANF by eliminating a key accountability measure. No longer do states need to achieve what TANF was intended to accomplish in order to receive the federal dollars in full.
My bill simply stops states from counting third-party spending as their own. States need to make the investment and they need to produce a good outcome. We need this level of genuine accountability if we are to be successful.
My bill was introduced as part of a broader legislative package that aims to increase the employment of low-income families. As part of the package, we also introduced more incentives for states to help people get a good job. We give states more resources to be innovative in how they tackle poverty at home. We create a clearinghouse for best practices, so good ideas can go farther.
I firmly believe the best way out of poverty is a good job and that’s what these bills are intended to do. In recent months, we’ve seen the national unemployment rate fall, but those numbers are deceiving because more and more people are dropping out of the workforce. In fact, the portion of Americans engaged in the workforce today is lower than at any point since Jimmy Carter was president. That lack of employment is reverberating throughout our economy and stopping us from moving beyond the recession. The only way to break this cycle is to give folks more opportunities to rise up and out of poverty.