Congresswoman Pushes Back Against Paul Ryan’s Welfare Reform With Her Own Plan

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

First, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) laid out his vision for how to help America’s poorest. Now a colleague from the same state has laid out hers and challenged him to back up his rhetoric.

Last week, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore re-introduced the RISE Out of Poverty Act, which would significantly overhaul the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, also known as welfare. This is not the first time Moore has put these ideas forward; in fact, she came to Congress with these plans in mind after having received welfare benefits herself in the past. As a single mother struggling to complete her education, welfare played a crucial role in lifting her out of poverty.

“I was motivated to work hard and to win this seat in 2004 to come to Congress to fix TANF,” she told ThinkProgress.

But the time may have come for actual action. Last year, Ryan released a sweeping proposal for reforming virtually all of the country’s anti-poverty programs. He has since worked with lawmakers from both parties on a draft bill that would overhaul TANF.

This could be an opening for Moore’s ideas. “I think the time is right now because…Paul Ryan has this within his crosshairs,” she said. “To the extent that he is prioritizing it, it’s really time to have a real conversation.”

Moore’s bill has a number of provisions. It would stipulate that the program’s number one priority is to reduce child poverty; right now, many states are incentivized to simply decrease the number of people enrolled in the safety net benefit. It would index the block grant funding to inflation and child population growth since 1996; the money hasn’t been updated since then, so it’s lost 28 percent of its value. It would lift the time limits that kick people off the rolls after 60 months whenever the unemployment rate hits 6.5 percent or higher. It would make it much easier for recipients to count time spent in education and training toward the work requirements necessary to get benefits. It would guarantee child care for all recipients who work. It would stop states from collecting child support from non-custodial parents for their own coffers and instead pass them through to parents.

She thinks some of these will appeal to Ryan and other Republicans. One is changing how education and training are taken into consideration. Currently, states have to meet a “work participation rate” quota of how many recipients partake in a narrow set of work activities for at least 20 to 30 hours a week. But just one year of vocational training can count toward those activities, while getting a GED, attending college, or getting education and training directly related to employment don’t count.

Moore described the predicament of one of her constituents: a young woman who had a child at the age of 15 and never finished high school. She is now “trapped in one of these kinds of jobs where there is no upward mobility,” Moore said. “Someone who is intelligent enough to really be able to reboot her life if she could at least get a GED.” But without reform, taking the time to get a GED would interfere with this woman’s ability to receive TANF benefits.

Another area of agreement Moore thinks is likely is child support. When welfare was reformed in 1996, one change was that if a custodial parent gets TANF benefits, any child support from a noncustodial parent is taken by the state rather than being given to the parent, which often ends up discouraging low-income fathers from paying their obligations. Wisconsin experimented with changing its program so that most of the support goes directly to the parents, and an evaluation found that it ended up increasing how much noncustodial parents paid and how many custodial parents received support.

Moore thinks this provision could appeal to Ryan and get incorporated into his own plan. “This would be a huge benefit,” she said, for the incomes of the often poor, single mothers who are enrolled in TANF.

There are going to be flash points of disagreement, however. A central piece of Ryan’s overhaul of the nation’s anti-poverty programs is requiring all recipients to meet with providers and create “customized life plans.” Moore likes the sound of that but doubts what it would mean in reality. “It would be wonderful if everybody would get a personal coach,” she said. “The reality is that that’s really an expensive model.”

She knows this from personal experience. “I was fortunate when I was on welfare that every once in a while I would run into a woman who was my social worker, someone who took an interest in me personally,” she said. That woman would call her regularly to check in and help her find ways to meet her goals. “But that was rare, and that’s expensive.” It’s more common that case workers are interested only in monitoring whether recipients are eligible for benefits.

Moore also calls for spending more money on the program, which may be anathema to conservatives. “It needs indexing for inflation,” she said. In 1996, TANF reached 72 percent of the poor families with children who should be eligible. By 2012, after inflation had eaten away at the value of the money states get from the federal government to administer the program, it dropped to 26 percent. And the benefits are now worth less in virtually every state than they were in the 90s, which means they can’t stretch as far as they used to. But Moore noted that Ryan “is not willing to move beyond the baseline, and of course that’s not enough money.”

And while this change doesn’t make it into her bill, Moore thinks TANF needs an even more fundamental reform. “The program is flawed in the way that it is structured,” she noted. The major change from the reform bill in 1996 was to make TANF a block grant, where the federal government gives states a fixed amount of money every year, rather than sharing in costs as they swing up and down with demand. Yet Ryan and other Republicans have proposed extending the block grant structure further, to all anti-poverty programs.

But the across-the-aisle conversation has already started. Moore discussed her bill with Ryan and hopes for a national dialogue about reform. “I hope to be able to expose, to peel back the rhetoric from the reality of the program,” she said. “You want people to be self sufficient? Hallelujah. Let’s talk about what that means.”