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Strengthening Families Through TANF Reauthorization

(Updated January 2004)

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that could be used by states to meet any of four purposes set out in the law. The second purpose is to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage. The fourth purpose is to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

As people of faith we believe that the institution, promise, and commitment of marriage exists not only as a contract between individuals, but as a covenant between God and humanity. Marriage is a foundational relationship within the social fabric in which individuals can experience affirmation, acceptance, identity, and positive formation. In our nation and culture, individuals choose to enter into a marriage relationship and are not compelled to do so by tradition or law. We uphold the dignity of all persons, both married and single. 

Eligibility requirements or statutory incentive programs tied to marriage diminish the sanctity of marriage and the dignity of an individual's decision to marry. Marriage is a social institution, but it is not a social prescription.  It is not a panacea for systemic social problems. The substitution of marriage for responsible and meaningful social programs obscures the political and economic issues involved, and puts a price on the unique nature of a marriage covenant. Such an approach degrades marriage, obscures the real causes of poverty, and is potentially dangerous in abusive or coerced relationships. A more effective approach to reducing poverty and strengthening families would be to adopt policies which remove disincentives to marriage and promote stable families by helping poor mothers and fathers overcome the barriers that keep them apart.

Family Formation and Marriage

Family formation began taking a positive turn in the early 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates fell, non-marital birth rates stabilized, and the percentage of children living with two parents increased (Child Trends, August 2001; National Center for Health Statistics, October 2000; and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 2002.) Both Daniel Lichter, a sociologist at Ohio State University, and Belle Sawhill of the Brookings Institution believe that preventing out-of-wedlock births and teen pregnancy would provide the most effective route to family formation goals. However, in reality there is no research that confirms that these changes occurring in the 1990s have actually had a positive effect on family relationships or child well-being. In addition, there is a concern that data from the national Survey of America's Families, as reported by the Urban Institute, indicates that between 1997 and 1999, there was a small but statistically significant increase in the percentage of children living with neither of their biological parents.

Robert Lerman found that children growing up with two parents or cohabiting couples have much lower poverty rates than children living with single parents, and that children living with married couples tend to be better off economically than children living with cohabiting couples. Research by Sara McLanahan and Julien Teitler, Princeton University, provides evidence that suggests that children growing up with both biological parents are better off, independent of income. Although most children of single mothers do well, there are strong indications from research that, all else being equal, the absence of a biological father increases the risk of negative outcomes for children, such as lower educational attainment, increased likelihood of teenage pregnancy and diminished early labor force attachment. However, the research indicates that it is not marriage in itself that has an independent positive effect on child well-being. Children in stepparent families do no better on various measures of child well-being than children in single parent families. There is little known about whether children who grow up with two unmarried biological parents fare any worse or better than children who grow up with two married biological parents.

Social programs can have a positive impact on the marriage rates of disadvantaged persons. The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) provided generous financial incentives and grant increases for both single and two-parent families, regardless of marital status. The program also eliminated restrictive rules that limited participation by two-parent families. This program reduced poverty rates and increased marriage rates for both single-parent and two-parent families. If participants were married, they were more likely to stay married. The reductions in financial strain may have reduced a source of marital stress and instability which in turn could have led to longer lasting marriage. Increasing family income has also been shown to increase positive behaviors in children, decrease problem behaviors, and to have a positive effect on children's school achievement.

Ideas to Strengthen Families and Support Marriage

* Provide equitable support to poor two-parent families by prohibiting discrimination against two-parent families in establishing eligibility for benefits and services under TANF.

* Eliminate the separate work participation rate for two-parent families which, at 90 percent, may create a disincentive for states to serve these families.

* Require states to forgive child support debt owed to the state if a low-income separated couple marries, or remarries, or reunites.

* Allow states to extend Medicaid and SCHIP coverage to the uninsured parents of children eligible for these programs and provide additional funds to the states for this purpose.

* Give families who leave TANF and are owed past due child support first claim on all child support payments. It does not help children if the federal government and the states retain support payments for unreimbursed assistance costs.

* Allow child support paid by non-resident parents of children receiving TANF to go directly to the child rather than being retained by the state. 

* Encourage states to disregard at least a portion of the child support payment when calculating the family's TANF grant. If states implement a disregard, they should not have to remit any share of the support to the federal government as currently required.

* Develop child support policies that prevent the build-up of unmanageable child support debt and allow for forgiveness of child support owed to the government when appropriate.

* Provide additional funding for fatherhood initiatives that help disadvantaged low-income fathers increase their education and work skills, and address their barriers to employment.

* Prohibit the recovery of birthing costs from low-income fathers already paid by Medicaid.

* Provide states with funding to replicate effective programs that reduce teen pregnancy and childbearing, such as the Children's Aid Society-Carrera Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. Research funds are needed to identify effective programs and to encourage the replication of these programs. The few studies of abstinence-only programs that have been completed do not show any reduction in sexual behavior or contraceptive use.

* Far too many young men are in prison and are not available to form families.  Remove the inequity of sentencing between powder and crack cocaine convictions, and rethink the lengthy prison sentences for small time drug sellers.

 This briefing paper is part of a series developed by the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs/Justice for Women and Families. For further information on this topic contact: Kay Bengston, Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (202) 626-7942. E-mail


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