The 1996 federal welfare reform law is discouraging states and localities from experimenting with some of the most promising ideas for getting people back to work, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The independent auditing arm of Congress found that incentives baked into the nation’s largest cash assistance program — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)– actually undermine efforts to employ the poor.
The problem, according to the report, is that the current system encourages states to focus on activities that help them meet a flawed federal performance measure: the work participation rate. The measure, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a welfare policy analyst at the Center on Law and Social Policy, doesn’t reflect how many people on TANF are working, or even doing the things most likely to lead to work. “It’s a process measure,” she says. “It doesn’t look at whether people get jobs.”