Welfare to Work Reforms and Political PhilosophyResearch Paper

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Mind Map and Analysis:

Work First Family Assistance Program (TANF)

How can public administrators provide the necessary tools to help individuals effectively transition off the Work First Family Assistance Program/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

Some aspects of the philosophy behind the Work First Family Assistance Program / Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) seem consistent with theories of bureaucratic control of politics and public administration, institutional theory and the notion that standardized procedures provided by institutional authorities are the most effective ways to accomplish government objectives. The program provides a transitional bridge between dependence and independence on state aid by offering participants access to job training and educational resources the private sector does not necessarily provide. It reflects the concept that individuals who have been out of the workforce often need to learn skills to be valuable employees.

Yet the program has been subject to criticism. Although the "major fiscal goal of TANF policy is to reduce recipients' dependence on government assistance by requiring self-sufficiency through work; however, the low-wage jobs for which most TANF recipients are prepared do not pull their families out of poverty" (Hildebrandt & Stevens 2009). While the work-to-welfare concept may seem laudable on one hand, there is a gap between the actual skills conveyed and the goals of the program. Bureaucracies do not necessarily provide the most rational ways to achieve stated policy objectives, which, in the case of TANF is "human capital development" and "labor force attachment;" this often translates into "helping low-income women get a general equivalency diploma and learn basic work skills for entry-level jobs" with few opportunities for advancement (Hildebrandt & Stevens 2009). The negative side of bureaucratic approaches to political problem-solving is that bureaucracies can be more interested in protecting themselves and enforcement of rules versus accomplishing meaningful objectives. "Bureaucratic politics theories or explanations of why particular public policy decisions got made the way they did stress the motivation by the relevant officials in the government bureaucracy to protect or promote their own agency's special interests (in competition with other agencies) as a major motivating factor in shaping the timing and the content of government decisions" (Johnson 2005).

In fact, one of the most common complaints lodged against TANF is the rigidity of government institutions. Individuals have needs that cannot be satisfied by merely prodding them back to work. "Many clients are involved with multiple institutions, ranging from the shelter system to child welfare services, so dealing with overlapping government agencies ends up exacerbating social hardships" as the time demands to satisfy the requirements of all involved agencies can be overwhelming (Chen 2014). Coupled with the demands of looking for a job, satisfying bureaucratic requirements becomes even more insurmountable. "You cannot go and spend a day looking for a job... In order to be out [of the training program] you have to have a document saying that you have an appointment with a place ... All day, you're stuck there waiting" (Chen 2014).

Critics of rationalistic, bureaucratic models such as postmodern theorists of political philosophy would stress that work-to-welfare programs are often the result of constructed social values such as the superiority of work versus remaining on public assistance, versus the considerable obstacles these women may encounter in securing affordable childcare and transportation which cannot be balanced out by the low wages they are earning in entry-level positions. Furthermore, the superiority of middle-class women staying home with their children is often touted in the public discourse as if children of lower-class women cannot benefit from additional time at home with their mothers versus the children of the middle class (Larrison, Nackerud, & Risler, 2015, p. 53). The majority of TANF recipients, according to Larrison, Nackerud, & Risler (2015) are either women with young children or young to middle-aged parents of school-age children. Childcare is almost inevitably a concern yet the program does not address this need in a meaningful way. While all members of the working poor face obstacles to finding employment the "parents who had no options other than enrolling in TANF often differ in the degree and number of resources, access to resources, personal deficits, and especially health status" (Hildebrandt & Stevens 2009). The sole focus on the creation of punitive legislation to compel TANF recipients into employment of any kind, regardless of pay or quality, is not a long-term solution.

From a rational choice perspective, it could be argued that for many poor women remaining on public assistance is the more logical choice, versus expending time and energy to find poor-paying work and subjecting their children to questionable childcare situations. This is particularly true for workers with compromised health status or with children with special needs and TANF recipients are more likely to have health issues in their families compared with other working poor families (Hildebrandt & Stevens 2009). Rational choice or decision theory suggests that people are capable of weighing the consequences of different actions and selecting the best alternative. In fact, while conventional wisdom might suggest that 'obviously' a job is more advantageous for an individual seeking to improve his or her circumstances, for women who make up the vast percentage of TANF recipients that is not the case. "Low-paying jobs can leave female-headed households chronically on the brink of crisis, especially when women hold jobs that offer little flexibility and few benefits. With few options and without a margin of reserve resources, family capacity to weather difficulties and maintain health and well-being is tenuous at best" (Hildebrandt & Stevens 2009).

Public choice or institutional economics theorists "hold that people's choices about what they eat, how they dress and so forth are dictated by their culture. This also applies to their voting behavior. Our culture says that it is a good thing to vote and we therefore vote. Probably microeconomics and institutionalist economics are partially right. There is probably a tug-of-war between individual selfishness and culturally prescribed behavior" (Watkins 2015). In other words, support for specific economic policies, including popular public support of work-to-welfare programs lies in the strong support in America for individual values and the idea of 'pulling one's self up by one's own bootstraps.' This support does not lie necessarily even in self-interest but rather in the social shaping of exterior influence which determine voter choices and therefore external government policies.

The democratic notion that the best theory is always selected via the political process is challenged by frequent examples where the support of specific political concepts yields a less-than-optimal result. According to Anthony Downs' An Economic Theory of Democracy, political polarization in particular often leads to ineffective and inefficient decision-making, and this may be true of welfare policy as work-to-welfare programs are often seen as a compromise between those who wish to continue welfare as an institution and provide government support for the indigent and those who wish to cut government programs. Ultimately, work-to-welfare programs seem more grounded in ideological rather than real, practical needs. A punitive attitude towards welfare recipients also flies in the face of theories of citizenship which stress the need to focus on collective as well as individual interests for a state to sustain itself in a functional manner (Leydet 2014).

This stress upon the fact that government decision-making is not always founded upon sound policy choices also flies in the face of concepts such as public interest theory which stresses the corrective aspects of democracy and the ability for government programs to rectify problems. However, the strong support during the '90s upon welfare-to-work programs was less grounded in their actual proven benefits and more in the unpopularity of most social support programs for the poor. Many states have been quietly changing the programs to ensure they are more effective in addressing the target population's needs. New York State, for example, in recognition of the failure of programs such as TANF have instituted new reforms such as allowing work requirements to be adapted to childcare needs and focusing more on internships and communal service which provide a wider range of job skills (Chen 2015).

New York's reforms indicate how in some social climates, resistance to anti-poverty programs which actually penalize the poor have been heard. This reflects the concept of political process theory which stresses that the "success of social movements depends not only on the movement's resources but on those of major social systems such as the state and how these are brought to bear in support or opposition. From this perspective, it is important to understand the complex interaction between the movement and the larger social environment at the time" (Crossman 2015). Such notions are supported by the Keynesian philosophy of social consumerism, or the idea that the government has a responsibility to support some social goods, in this case the advancement of workers in a meaningful way that will give them a genuine foothold in society beyond that of low-income work. Economic theories must still be reflective of human psychological needs on an individual level: "While economists traditionally focus on 'economic needs,' psychologists… [END OF PREVIEW]

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