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For state advocates, the new resources in TANF and the opportunities opened up by the regulations offered some leverage to influence state policy and budget decisions and led to some early wins. But states also enacted policies—such as the earned-income disregard—that were helpful to families; removed provisions that limited access by two-parent families; maintained and, in some cases, raised benefit levels; and expanded child care assistance.

But results became much grimmer thereafter.

First, from the perspective of Congress, the regulations were not restrictive enough. Nine years after TANF, in the Deficit Reduction Act of , Congress changed the statute to override key portions of the regulations, including the flexibility in using state maintenance-of-effort resources and the high performance bonus. Second, even more damaging, no resources were ever added to TANF except the temporary boost through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of TANF is now in tatters.


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It helps less than one in five poor children, with extremely low benefit levels and few meaningful work activities. Yet effective state advocacy did make a difference. And some of the good choices that states made when money was available—at the start of the block grant and again under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—led to policy innovations, such as novel job training and subsidized employment strategies, that can guide advocacy.

As we aim for urgently needed reform, both the failures and the successes can help chart the course. Albany, NY When Pres. Ushering in a massive new block grant, TANF, welfare reform completely upended the federal-state fiscal relationship. Welfare reform was massive, confusing, and frightening.

It imposed time limits on federal benefits, prohibited states from using federal funds to help certain teen parents, and established new work rules and new definitions of work activities. It aimed some of its harshest provisions at legal immigrants and barred them from receiving Supplemental Security Income and food stamps. As we in the states reeled from the news and analysis coming from our colleagues in Washington, D. Here in New York we needed to act fast; Gov. But we had some time; it was August, and the legislature was not due back until January.

We trained legal aid staff, antihunger advocates, faith groups, child care providers, and welfare advocates. Off across the state we went forming, rallying, and educating local advocacy networks. By January the rhetoric was heated, and the governor was demanding action. He called out the Democrats who controlled the Assembly as being soft on welfare fraud, coddling those who refuse to work, and being unwilling to adopt what their darling President Clinton had so famously signed into law.

We kept the local advocacy networks active and called on the legislature not to abandon its most vulnerable constituents. We organized letters and postcards. We worked at a panicked pace with the progressive umbrella group, the Council of Churches, to educate the lawmakers and their staff. January, February, March—every Tuesday morning at the Council of Churches hosted a briefing in the legislative office building.

We briefed the legislators and staff on the time limits and reminded them that even though they could not use federal funds past the time limit, they could certainly use state funds. We briefed them on the teen-parent rules, learnfare, workfare, and the block-grant construct. We pointed out where the federal changes allowed the state to be more flexible in its approach to those in need.

We noted that if a person was entitled to federally funded assistance, then the state was entitled to federal payment in providing that assistance. Worried that the Assembly leadership was caving into the rhetoric, we worked quietly for weeks with a small group of progressive legislators to draft a comprehensive bill that would take the best of the federal law and soften the worst of it.

We met after hours and on weekends and pulled one last all-nighter over pizza and the keyboard. This strategy was not without risk: the progressive member who took the lead was stripped of his committee chairmanship and was forced to move to an office in a dark corner of the legislative office building where he had no conference room or copier. A core and committed group of legislators felt empowered because they were informed. Advocates around the state were active from start to finish. The final bill was not what we wanted, but we ended in a much better place than we would have been if we had not begun in a well-informed, progressive place.

Suite Boston, MA Then I switched to public benefits with a subspecialty in family law. I worked in all of these areas as well as family law, and sometimes I plunged into subjects about which I knew even less. The heyday of welfare litigation was already past when I became a public benefits lawyer. In a law school class taught by Ed Sparer, the welfare law pioneer, I read King v. Kelly , establishing the constitutional right to notice and a pretermination hearing in welfare cases.

Despite the failure to establish a constitutional or federal statutory right to basic subsistence, welfare lawyers in the mids still saw lots of opportunities. By that time most states had welfare manuals or regulations that laid out the rules and were available to advocates and sometimes to the public. In Philadelphia, where I was practicing, we could usually persuade a local welfare office to comply with the rules through informal advocacy, and, if not, thanks to Goldberg , we could go to a fair hearing.

Federal or state court was also an option—dicier than in an earlier era but still offering a reasonable chance of success. We had a number of legal handles: Had the welfare office correctly applied the state rule? Did the state rule comply with the governing state statute and the federal AFDC statute? Did the rules and the statute comply with the state and federal constitutions? Because legal aid lawyers and paralegals saw hundreds of cases a year, we had a lot of information about how the rules were being applied and a huge pool of cases from which to choose for systemic advocacy.

The National Welfare Rights Organization was dissolved in , but state and local welfare rights organizations continued to guide legal aid advocacy and sometimes served as organizational plaintiffs in litigation. Welfare advocacy was satisfying. We were fighting the government, not individual landlords, employers, or other people in poverty. An injunction or declaratory judgment changed the rule or practice for thousands of people.

Getting relief in individual cases was also satisfying; we got to tell the person sitting in our office that she would get her benefits, and we felt that our legal training had made a small, positive difference. Federal statutory changes in the s made succeeding in a court challenge tougher, but welfare advocates plugged away.

Westlaw reports 4, state and federal cases that mention AFDC in the 17 years from through More analysis is needed to determine if welfare litigation actually declined as dramatically as the number of reported cases that refer to AFDC or TANF. I would not be surprised if welfare litigation did drop steeply. Welfare cash assistance caseloads plummeted—from 4.

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With fewer families receiving cash assistance, fewer are likely connecting with an advocate, and advocates who see fewer cases are likely identifying fewer litigation issues. Legal aid programs may have shifted increasingly strained resources elsewhere because they see fewer welfare cases. If welfare lawyers, particularly legal aid lawyers, no longer litigate welfare cases to the extent we once did, the drop in the caseload and overburdened legal aid programs are only part of the explanation.

Another part is that, besides ending welfare as we knew it, welfare reform ended welfare law as we knew it. The federal statute no longer requires participating states to grant benefits to families who meet federal eligibility conditions. Indeed, the federal statute now says only who is not eligible, not who is eligible.

Welfare reform: effects of a decade of change | Awards & Grants

For the most part, the federal statute and regulations no longer offer grounds for challenging state welfare rules and policies. Welfare recipients have disappeared into even more crushing poverty. Welfare litigation appears to have dropped dramatically. However, a huge need remains for advocates to make sure that families in desperate poverty at least get what they are eligible for under state policies and rules.

In addition to making a difference for individual families, legal representation in these individual cases can form the knowledge base for systemic advocacy to improve state welfare programs and block cuts in benefits and eligibility. Legal challenges may be viable under state statutes and regulations, federal statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, or state or federal constitutions.


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In general, however, systemic welfare advocacy now is more likely to occur in state legislatures and state bureaucracies than in the courts. Some legislative and administrative advocacy makes major positive improvements, such as the elimination of the welfare family cap rules in California, Illinois, and Minnesota. Washington St. Suite Chicago, IL I am not an expert in immigration law and never have been. But, like many of us who specialized in public benefits and more general poverty law, I realized I had to pay closer attention to at least some of the issues affecting noncitizens when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act cleared Congress and was signed into law in The Act was the beginning of an attack on legal immigrants, in addition to the continuing antipathy to undocumented immigrants, who had never been eligible for most forms of federally funded public assistance anyway.

The Act resulted from the perfect storm of hostile immigration ideology and budget hawk ideology. The new restrictions on eligibility for legally present noncitizens were complex and confusing.