WASHINGTON, D.C. – With more than 45 million Americans living in poverty, U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) today introduced bipartisan legislation that would modernize the federal government’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to help lift more low-income families out of poverty and put them back onto the path to economic self-sufficiency.

The EMPOWER (Enhancing and Modernizing Pathways to Opportunity Through Work, Education, and Responsibility) Act would reauthorize and reform TANF to reflect changes in the American economy and the challenges facing poor families seeking to move up the economic ladder. More specifically, the legislation would modernize TANF to better provide more targeted support for low-income families and their children, connect more adults to the education and job training that can lift them out of poverty, and encourage states to focus on delivering results for low-income families and children.

“As economic struggles persist in West Virginia, it is essential we connect more of our residents to new training opportunities and work experiences. By modernizing and strengthening the purpose of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known in West Virginia as WV Works, we will work towards this goal while also meeting the immediate financial concerns of those in need and helping to lift more families out of poverty,” said Senator Capito.

“The surest route out of poverty is through the education and training that lead to a good job. But right now, the TANF program, which is meant to support low-income Americans, is failing to provide them with adequate access to these critical tools,” Senator King said. “That’s why our legislation takes important steps to modernize TANF and connect more Americans to the resources they need. By improving and strengthening TANF, we can lift more people out of poverty, reduce reliance on public assistance programs, and put more people into the jobs that will help them turn their lives around.”

“I’m proud to introduce the EMPOWER Act with my colleagues so we can work together to provide opportunities for individuals in New Hampshire and across the country to get out of poverty,” said Senator Ayotte. “As we care for one another, it’s imperative that we provide state and local governments and communities with all the tools they need to empower individuals and help lift them out of poverty. Our legislation would update the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) program to connect more adults with training and work experience they need to move them out of poverty and encourage states to focus on delivering results for low income families and children.”

“The current TANF program has failed to adequately address the issues that millions of Americans are facing in this country and we must do more to help families in need,” Senator Brown said. “This legislation is an important step in the right direction toward expanding Americans’ access to the assistance they need to make ends meet, along with the resources and training necessary to secure a good-paying job.”

Twenty years ago, President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing the federal government’s old assistance program with a redesigned block grant program known as TANF.

By some measures, TANF achieved its goal: since 1996, monthly TANF caseloads have declined by nearly two thirds. By other measures, however – like the program’s ability to lift poor families out of poverty, promote sustained transitions to employment, or respond to economic downturns – TANF has had less success.

When TANF was enacted, it served 68 of every 100 families in poverty. Today, it only helps 23 of every 100 families. Furthermore, because nothing in current law measures states’ effectiveness in connecting families who leave TANF to jobs or helping them leaving poverty, the federal government and states have limited information on whether or not the program is really working.

As the 20th anniversary of the 1996 enactment of TANF approaches, it’s time for Congress to bring the program into the 21st century. The EMPOWER Act would reform and redesign the TANF program to hold states accountable for engaging TANF beneficiaries in work and transitioning them to long-term independence.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Refocus TANF’s purposes by adding the goals of reducing deep child poverty and increasing employment entry, retention, and advancement to the program’s purposes.
  • Remove TANF’s marriage penalty by eliminating the program’s disincentives to serve two-parent families, which discourage marriage and the formation of two-parent households.
  • Increase work participation of TANF recipients by restricting the use of the caseload reduction credit and limiting work supplement payments to those payments that promote transitions to work.
  • Streamline work participation activities by eliminating convoluted work activity definitions, reducing states’ administrative burden, expanding the opportunity to participate in education and job training, and improving access to job preparation activities.
  • Targeting TANF funds by asking states to focus on families most in need and increasing the percentage of funds that are devoted to the program’s core purposes.
  • Tracking and reporting results by asking states to set annual goals related to improving job placement among former TANF recipients as well as success in serving eligible low-income children and their families.

The EMPOWER Act has been endorsed by the National Skills Coalition.

“TANF is one of our nation’s most important anti-poverty programs; however, twenty years after its original passage it is clear that the law needs to be strengthened to better align with the realities of the 21st century economy,” said Andy Van Kleunen, CEO of the National Skills Coalition. “In particular, we need to focus on expanding access to proven education and workforce development strategies which can help more TANF recipients to transition into well-paying and sustainable employment, while helping businesses fill growing skills gaps. The EMPOWER Act will make it easier for states and other partners to develop and implement high-quality training opportunities for TANF recipients, and we applaud Senators King, Ayotte, Brown, and Capito for their leadership on this important issue.”

To read a section-by-section summary of the EMPOWER Act, click HERE. To read the complete text of the legislation, click HERE