More About Liz Schott

Liz Schott

Schott currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center's Welfare Reform and Income Support Division.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

Effective Home Visiting Programs for High-Risk Families in Jeopardy Unless Congress Acts

March 10, 2014 at 3:12 pm

A federal-state partnership that supports family- and child-related home visiting programs in every state is slated to expire October 1, threatening a host of programs that are effective at strengthening high-risk families and saving money over the long run, according to a paper we issued today with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) targets high-risk families who are most likely to benefit from intensive home visiting services, through which trained professionals (often nurses, social workers, or parent educators) help parents acquire the skills to promote their children’s development.  MIECHV provides the federal funds, while states and localities implement the programs.  Congress provided $400 million for MIECHV this year.

When Congress created MIECHV in 2010, it authorized and funded the program for five years (fiscal years 2010 through 2014).  If Congress doesn’t extend MIECHV by September 30, when fiscal year 2014 ends, no new federal funds will be available.

Research shows that home visiting programs promote children’s health and development and improve parenting skills while cutting the number of children in the social welfare, mental health, and juvenile corrections systems, with considerable cost savings for states.  

MIECHV funds have spurred important innovations.  For example, Iowa expanded home visiting to 15 at-risk, underserved communities and is taking steps to improve program quality and coordination, such as creating a statewide data collection system and requiring state certification for all home visiting and family support practitioners.   

Failure to extend MIECHV would have unfortunate consequences for communities in every state.  Fewer families in at-risk communities would be served, and states may have to end efforts to improve data collection and assessment and strengthen coordination across programs.  Moreover, states — and the nation — would lose the opportunity to build the evidence base for these effective programs and expand them.

Click here to read the full paper.

Next Week’s SNAP Cut Will Worsen Struggles for Many TANF Families

October 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm

The cash assistance benefits that some poor families receive through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are already low, as states have allowed inflation to erode their value over time.  Now, other support that many of these same families receive is poised to fall, too, when a temporary increase in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) benefits ends next week.

As we explain in our updated analysis of state TANF programs, TANF’s benefits are worth at least 20 percent less than they were in 1996 in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation.  In every state, a family of three with no other cash income other than TANF falls below 50 percent of the federal poverty line.

Many TANF families — about 81 percent — receive SNAP benefits, which provide them with critical nutrition support.  But even the combination of the two programs doesn’t lift these families above the poverty line (see chart).

The coming SNAP cut will make it even harder for these families to meet their basic needs.  The 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost to SNAP benefits, which will end on November 1, will cut benefits for every SNAP household.  For a family of three, the cut will be $29 a month — or $319 over the remaining 11 months of the fiscal year.

That cut will more than wipe out even the small TANF benefit gains that seven states have already implemented this year.  (Maryland is implementing a TANF increase of $48 for a family of three as of November 1.)  These are serious losses, especially in light of the already very low basic SNAP — and TANF — benefits.

Purchasing Power of TANF Benefits Fell Further in 2012

March 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Cash assistance for the nation’s poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2012, we detail in our annual update of state benefit levels under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Most states left their benefit levels unchanged last year, so benefits continued to erode by inflation.

In 37 states, and after adjusting for inflation, benefits are now at least 20 percent below their levels of 1996 — the year policymakers created TANF.

For all states, as of July 1, 2012, benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were below half of the federal poverty line, measured as a share of the Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for 2012 (see map).  Benefits were below 30 percent of the poverty line in the majority of states.

On the other hand, no states cut benefit levels in 2012, and a few took the opportunity to increase the benefit level or to follow through on past commitments to modestly raise benefits or adjust them for inflation.  TANF benefits increased, in nominal dollars, in New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

TANF provides a safety net to relatively few poor families:  in 2011, just 27 families received TANF benefits for every 100 poor families, down from 68 families receiving TANF for every 100 in poverty in 1996.  But for the families that participate in the program, it often is their only source of support and without it, they would have no cash income to meet their basic needs.

It’s time for states to halt the erosion of TANF benefits and slowly regain some of the purchasing power that they’ve lost over the past 16 years.

Click here to read the full paper.

Santorum’s Right: Better Access to Education Is a Key Part of Welfare Reform

August 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Former Senator Rick Santorum argues in today’s Wall Street Journal that gaining work skills through better access to education and skills training should be an essential part of welfare reform.

We agree — but these are exactly the kind of improvements that the Obama Administration’s recent announcement about waivers for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which Mr. Santorum harshly criticizes, is designed to promote.

Current TANF rules discourage states from encouraging recipients to pursue skills training or education that will help them qualify for better jobs.  States face a financial penalty if they do not have a specified percentage of their TANF caseload in work activities, and there are narrow limits on when participation in education or training can count toward that federal target.

For example, states can count vocational education toward their federal work requirement only for 12 months in a recipient’s lifetime, even though many industry-focused training and community college programs last from 18 months to two years.  Similarly, completing high school or a GED as a full-time activity counts toward the federal work requirement only for people under age 20, even though it’s very hard for anyone without these credentials to find a job these days.

Some states allow TANF recipients to participate in certain education activities even if they don’t count toward the state’s federal work requirement.  For example, Nebraska passed a law this year to allow completion of high school or a GED as a full-time work activity for TANF parents up to age 24.  But the new law also states that the option will be suspended if Nebraska risks not meeting its federal work requirement.

Fixing rules that discourage states from helping TANF families get education and skills training should be a top priority for Congress when it renews the welfare law.  In the meantime, the Administration has said it will consider granting waivers from certain provisions of the law for states that want to test whether there are more effective ways to meet TANF’s work goals — such as by allowing a longer period of vocational education in order to improve employment outcomes.  A state like Nebraska could seek a waiver so it could continue its approach of allowing recipients to complete high school or get a GED as a stand-alone work activity without risking fiscal penalty.

“We need to help clear a path for poor and low-income Americans to achieve their dreams,” Mr. Santorum writes.  That’s exactly right, and by allowing states to look for better ways to connect families to employment, the Administration has taken a step in the right direction.

A Layered Look at State Spending Under TANF

August 8, 2012 at 10:32 am

In a new paper, we’ve studied how states have used their federal and state funds under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program since it — and its structure as a block grant — replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996.

That analysis revealed some troubling national trends, as I explained yesterday.  It’s important to remember, though, that states vary widely beneath those national, top-line numbers.  For example, national spending on basic assistance fell from 70 percent of combined federal and state TANF funds at TANF’s start to only about 29 percent in 2011.  But a state-by-state look shows that there’s more than a 50-point difference separating the states that spent the greatest and least shares of their state and federal TANF funds on basic assistance in 2011.  Nine states spent less than 15 percent, while seven others spent 40 percent or more (see chart).

We’ve prepared individual fact sheets for each state and the District of Columbia as well as an overall fact sheet on total U.S. spending trends to explain these variations in greater detail.  Each sheet includes:

  • The amount of the state’s 2011 federal TANF allocation and own spending obligation;
  • State-specific trends in spending between 1997 and 2011, including shifts in how the state has used its state and federal TANF funds over time; and
  • Detailed comparison of a state’s TANF spending in five key areas between 2011 and a decade earlier.

Click here to access the fact sheets. Interested readers can also download a spreadsheet with detailed, annual state-by-state data here.

States’ TANF Spending Record Shows Dangers in Block Granting the Safety Net

August 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Some policymakers, such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, have suggested that the government restructure a variety of federally funded programs for low-income families — including Medicaid and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) — similar to the way the 1996 welfare law converted the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant.

We’ve taken a close look at how states have used their federal and state funds under TANF in a new paper.  Our findings provide a cautionary tale about the dangers of converting basic safety-net programs to block grants.

We found that:

  • Spending on basic assistance now accounts for a relatively small share of federal and state TANF expenditures. At TANF’s onset, states used 70 percent of their combined TANF funds for basic assistance for poor families.  That figure fell to only about 29 percent in 2011.  Nine states spent less than 15 percent of their combined TANF funds on basic assistance in 2011.
  • States initially shifted some resources from cash assistance to child care and work-related activities, but spending in these areas has remained generally flat for the last decade and has dropped somewhat in recent years.  States now spend only about a quarter of their TANF dollars on child care and work activities.
  • States are using a significant and growing share of TANF funds to support other state services, including child welfare; they also have diverted substantial funds formerly used to assist poor families to other purposes. In some cases, states’ use of TANF funds for other services has enabled them to expand useful existing services.  In other cases, states have used the dollars to replace existing state funds, thereby freeing those state funds for purposes unrelated to providing a safety net or work opportunities for low-income families.

When the recession hit in late 2007, many states could not — for fiscal or political reasons — reclaim those dollars to address the substantial increases in need for cash assistance among the growing numbers of poor families; instead, facing budget shortfalls, many states cut already-low TANF benefit amounts further, shortened TANF time limits, or took other actions to shrink caseloads or keep them from rising much in the face of mounting need.

As policymakers consider TANF’s future — and how they might reform other safety-net programs — they should heed these lessons.  For states, block grants may look enticing because they offer flexibility.  But, it ultimately leaves them worse off over time.

The block grant structure isn’t a winning one for the federal government, either.  As we’ve seen under TANF, it can lead to less accountability, less federal direction and oversight, and state spending of federal funds in ways that Congress did not intend.

In an upcoming post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the state-by-state details behind the national numbers.

Click here to read the full paper and the related state fact sheets.

Pennsylvania Shuts Down Its Safety Net of Last Resort

August 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Pennsylvania ended cash assistance today for very poor residents who cannot work and don’t qualify for other assistance, joining many other states that have scaled back or eliminated their General Assistance programs even as the need has grown.

Roughly 60,000 childless adults (and the adult heads of some families) whom the state considers unemployable because of a disability or for certain other reasons — they are elderly, escaping domestic violence, or caring for a disabled family member, for example — got about $200 a month from the program.

These modest benefits helped many residents avoid or escape homelessness, get needed medical care, and otherwise meet basic daily needs.  You can hear some of their stories in this brief video, which a coalition of groups produced as part of an unsuccessful effort to save the program.

Nationally, the erosion in General Assistance programs has been proceeding for more than two decades, as our major report last fall detailed.   These cutbacks continued during and after the recent severe recession, despite high unemployment and the growing number of people who have run out of unemployment insurance without finding a job.

Almost every state that didn’t eliminate its General Assistance program provides lower benefits now than in 1998, after adjusting for inflation, as this chart from our 2011 report shows.  Benefits are worth less than one-quarter of the poverty line in most states.

By and large, the federal government has left it up to states to provide basic assistance to childless adults who need it.  States have never provided much support for this group, and the continued weakening of General Assistance programs means that more of the nation’s most vulnerable people are going to face severe hardship.

Hardship in America, Part 2: Safety Net Withering for Poor Families with Children

November 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm

The Great Recession has exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s safety net.  The Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and Medicaid have shown  that safety-net programs can, if designed properly, push back against increased hardship during a downturn by responding automatically to sharp and sudden increases in need.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to low-income families with children who have nowhere else to turn for help.

TANF’s effectiveness as a safety net depends both on the extent to which very poor families are enrolled in it and on the level of benefits that they receive.  TANF has been performing inadequately in both areas for some time, but the situation has worsened during the downturn:

  • Few very needy families receive TANF benefits. In 1996, for every 100 poor families with children, 68 received cash assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which TANF replaced.  In 2009, for every 100 such families in poverty, only 27 received cash assistance through TANF.  Between December 2007 and December 2009, state TANF caseloads increased by just 13 percent nationally, lagging far behind the increases in SNAP caseloads, the number of unemployed, and the number of people in families with children that live below the poverty line.
  • TANF benefit levels are low and falling. Cash assistance benefits have fallen by 20 percent or more in 34 states since 1996, after adjusting for inflation (see chart).  In the median state, a family of three receives just $428 per month.  The majority of states now provide TANF benefits that are below 30 percent of the poverty line.

Worse, six states and the District of Columbia have cut their TANF benefit levels since August 2010, our new report shows, reducing assistance for more than 700,000 low-income families that represent over one-third of all low-income families receiving such assistance nationwide.

TANF benefits thus are increasingly inadequate to help poor families meet basic needs, like housing. In every state, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three is less than the estimated cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The much-touted 1996 bipartisan welfare reform deal, which created TANF, sought a balanced approach:  to require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work while maintaining a safety net for parents who were unable to work due to a short-term crisis, a work-limiting disability, or the lack of available jobs.  (Many of the families that receive assistance include a disabled household member and most have limited job skills, which makes finding a job in a weak economy that much harder.)  Unfortunately, the program’s safety-net aspect is getting weaker with every passing year.

Related Posts:

State Help for Poor Childless Adults Weakening

October 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Despite persistent high unemployment, a number of states are shrinking or eliminating their General Assistance programs, which provide a safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and don’t qualify for other public assistance.  Our new survey — the first comprehensive, published survey on General Assistance programs in 13 years — finds that seven states cut General Assistance this year, continuing a long-term erosion in these important programs.

Thirty states have General Assistance programs, which generally serve very poor individuals who do not have minor children, are not disabled enough to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and are not elderly.  There is basically no federally supported cash safety-net program for poor childless adults who do not receive SSI.

In most of these states, only individuals who are considered unable to work, generally due to a physical or mental condition, can receive General Assistance.  (Only 12 states provide General Assistance to able-bodied individuals.)

The benefits that these programs provide are extremely modest — less than one-quarter of the poverty line in most states.

General Assistance has become a much weaker safety net over the years.  Many states have eliminated programs altogether, limited eligibility, and cut or frozen benefit levels.  A few lowlights:

  • Between 1989 and 2010, eight states eliminated their programs and 13 others eliminated benefits for employable people, while continuing some aid to people considered unemployable.
  • In 2011, Illinois and Kansas eliminated their programs and five other states — Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia — reduced benefit levels and/or restricted eligibility.
  • In almost every state that still has a General Assistance program, benefits are lower now than in 1998, after adjusting for inflation (see graph).  Many states have frozen benefits since 1998; a few have even cut benefits.

By and large, the federal government has left it up to states to provide basic assistance to childless adults who need it.  States have never provided significant support for this group, and the continued weakening of General Assistance programs means that more poor childless adults — many of them with disabilities — are going to face severe hardship.

General Assistance Benefits Have Fallen in Real Terms in Nearly Every State

Michigan’s Tighter TANF Time Limits on Hold, for Now

October 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Earlier this week I wrote about recent cutbacks in state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, including a tightening of Michigan’s time limit that ended benefits for nearly 12,000 families.  Since then, a federal judge has temporarily halted the benefit cutoff for these families.  Constitutional requirements grounded in notions of basic fairness — that the state notify families why they are no longer eligible and inform them that they can appeal the cutoff —“were not met or even close to met,” the judge stated.

Unfortunately, benefits will end for many families after the state provides a legally sufficient notice, so the reprieve for these families may only be a few weeks.


The Latest on State TANF Cuts

October 3, 2011 at 3:29 pm

We’ve updated our analysis of the cuts that states made this year in their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.  Here’s a brief look at our findings:

States in 2011 implemented some of the harshest TANF cuts in recent history for many of the nation’s most vulnerable families with children.  The cuts affect 700,000 low-income families — over one-third of all low-income families receiving TANF nationwide.

A number of states have cut cash assistance deeply for families that already live far below the poverty line, ended it entirely for many other families with physical or mental health issues or other challenges, or cut child care or other work-related assistance that make it harder for many poor parents fortunate enough to have jobs to keep them.

Among the state TANF cuts to date:

  • At least five states — California, Washington, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and New Mexico — and the District of Columbia have reduced already-low cash assistance benefit levels for TANF families.  (The benefit cuts for Wisconsin and  California have gone into effect since our earlier analysis.)  In addition, New Hampshire eliminated TANF cash assistance entirely for two-parent families.  These cuts are pushing hundreds of thousands of families and children below — or further below — half of the poverty line.
  • States have shortened or otherwise tightened their lifetime time limits on receiving TANF benefits, cutting off aid entirely for thousands of very poor families and reducing benefits for thousands more.  California and Arizona shortened their time limits, and several other states tightened time limits.  Just this week, Michigan implemented time limit changes that caused about 12,000 families to lose TANF coverage.

Many of the cuts run counter to states’ longstanding approaches to welfare reform and are driven by state fiscal pressures.  For example, some states have abandoned their “make-work-pay” policies designed to help poor parents working in low-wage jobs.  Similarly, states have shortened their time limits and eliminated some bases for extensions or exemptions, and applied these changes retroactively.  As a result, states have terminated or reduced benefits for some of the most vulnerable families, most of whom have very poor labor market prospects.

These TANF cuts come at a time when unemployment remains very high, the prospects of finding jobs (especially for people with low skills), are poor, and deep poverty — that is, the share of the population with incomes below half the poverty line ($11,157 for a family of four) — is worsening.

And, a new round of TANF cuts is starting.  Kansas just announced a series of measures slated to take effect over the next three months, including shorter time limits.  Washington, which imposed severe cuts this year, is considering more, including further cuts in benefit levels — which are already lower than when Congress created TANF 15 years ago.

Michigan’s Mis-Timed TANF Cut

August 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm

A report from the Port Huron Times Herald this week noted that, to help reduce the state’s budget shortfall, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign legislation to reduce the time that individuals can receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or welfare, assistance.  The new 48-month limit is expected to cause more than 11,000 people to lose benefits at the October 1 start of the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Michigan has enacted large tax cuts that will cost more than $1 billion in 2012 alone. Michigan is among 12 other states with budget shortfalls to enact tax cuts, most of them benefitting corporations and high-income individuals. Thus, Michigan is cutting programs for the poor, as a prolonged downturn has significantly hurt struggling families, while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.

Snyder’s expected signature on TANF cuts comes just as my colleague, Donna Pavetti, has explored TANF’s record in providing assistance to needy families all across America a full 15 years after it was created as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.

In a four-part series on our blog, Pavetti noted that while the poverty rate initially declined when the economy was booming and unemployment was extremely low, it started increasing in 2000 and now exceeds its 1996 level. At the same time, the national TANF caseload has declined by 60 percent.

These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that a much smaller share of poor families are receiving the critical assistance that they need as the economy continues to struggle.

In light of these daunting statistics, it is even more unfortunate that states across the country are continuing to make some of the harshest cuts in history to this vital safety net for America’s poorest families.

While budget shortfalls in states must be addressed, budgets should not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable.