by Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal
December 23, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also called TANF, should be doing more to help families find a way out of poverty, according to “Turning Assistance Into Opportunity,” a just-released KIDS COUNT report from New Mexico Voices for Children.

The TANF program provides financial assistance to eligible families with children for basic necessities. That cash assistance is tied to work or work-related activity requirements, the source of much of the criticism.

“New Mexico has not spent one dime of TANF funding on education and training programs over the last several years,” said Sharon Kayne, spokeswoman for New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonpartisan organization that advocates on behalf of children and families.

A spokesman for the state Human Services Department, which administers the TANF program, neither agreed nor disagreed with the assessment of the report, saying only that the department’s hands were tied and a lot of changes sought by the group need to go through the Legislature.

When welfare was reformed 20 years ago, a lifetime limit of five years was established for people receiving benefits, Kayne said.

“The federal government gives states a lot of leeway in how they spend TANF money, as long as they adhere to TANF goals, which include ending dependence on government benefits by promoting education and job training,” she said. “The work-related activities that TANF does offer can help parents find jobs, but without education or job training, these will not be jobs that can lift families out of poverty or really help our economy.”

James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said TANF’s objective of getting parents into “any job,” regardless if the income is enough to support the family, “is not a long-term strategy for poverty reduction or economic growth.”

Another weakness with TANF, Jimenez said, is that much of the funding is spent on services that do not end up benefiting TANF families. For example, state child care assistance receives $31 million in TANF funding, but only 4 percent of TANF families receive this benefit even though almost half of children receiving TANF are under the age of 5, he noted.

HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison pointed out that because TANF policies are set by the federal government, and the funds are specifically appropriated by the state Legislature, “the report’s recommendations would need to be implemented by policymakers at those levels,” he said.

“We have worked with legislators to increase TANF funding for the New Mexico Works Career Links program, which provides education, skills improvement and subsidized employment,” Nerison said. “Through legislation, the Department is also establishing high school equivalency (GED) and vocation training programs.”

TANF is funded by nearly $235.9 million, a combination of $104.6 million in federal money and $131.3 million in state money, Kayne said.

According to the KIDS COUNT report, only 22 of every 100 families living in poverty get TANF money, and only 17 in every 100 children – some 23,430 kids – were served by TANF in 2015.

“The cash assistance is also time limited to 60 months over a lifetime and is too little for a family to live on while parents look for work or attend school,” the report said.

A family of three receives an average of $409 per month, which when adjusted for inflation represents a 30 percent drop from 20 years age, it said.

Copyright 2016, Albuquerque Journal