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Advocates For Needy Urge Changes To PA Welfare System

J. Scott Applewhite

  Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, an advocacy group that works with low-income families, is calling for Pennsylvania to overhaul the way it administers its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the state's welfare system, saying that it's "shredding" people's chances to dig out of deep poverty.

In a report released Monday called Mending the Safety Net, CLS said the cash assistance program's requirements are too burdensome and that it doesn't provide families with nearly enough money each month.

"We think there's a perfect storm," said Kristen Dama, supervising attorney at CLS.

The report lays out several solutions for improving TANF, including retraining caseworkers, offering non-recurring grants for special needs such as back-to-school clothes or diapers, and raising grant levels. Those grant levels haven't changed since 1990.

A single mother with two children, Pennsylvania's most common TANF enrollee, gets $403 a month. The federal poverty line is $1,680 a month.

CLS would also like to make it easier for applicants to apply for jobs while they're waiting to be accepted into the program, a requirement.

Applicants have to submit proof that they have applied for three jobs per week to be enrolled.

"In theory, that sounds like a really great idea," said Dama. "The problem is that there's no opportunity to provide transportation or child care or any supports for desperately poor families to do this search."

The report coincides with the 20th anniversary of The Welfare Reform Act.

President Bill Clinton signed the landmark bill in 1996, the first time the country's welfare system had changed in more than six decades. Clinton thought it would do wonders, famously proclaiming that it would "end welfare as we know it."

Early on, the program was considered pretty successful as thousands of enrollees found jobs and poverty rates declined. But as the economy soured, particularly during the Great Recession, it gained more and more critics.

A spokesman with Gov. Tom Wolf said the administration has no plans to reform TANF. As of June, nearly 160,000 individuals received TANF cash assistance in Pennsylvania. Nearly half of them live in Philadelphia.