Welfare Reform:

More Research Needed on TANF Family Caps and Other Policies for Reducing Out-Of-Wedlock Births

GAO-01-924: Published: Sep 11, 2001. Publicly Released: Oct 12, 2001.

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To reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies among welfare recipients, some states have imposed family caps on welfare benefits. One factor that determines the amount of cash benefits a family receives is the family's size--larger families receive more benefits. In states with a family cap policy, however, no additional cash benefits are provided with the birth of another. Twenty-three states have implemented some variation of a family cap, breaking the traditional link between a family's size and the amount of its monthly welfare check. Generally, these states implemented family cap policies as part of their welfare reforms to reduce out-of-wedlock births and to encourage self-sufficiency. During an average month in 2000, 20 of the 23 family cap states reported that about 108,000 families received less in cash benefits than they would have in the absence of state-imposed family cap policies. In an average month, about nine percent of welfare families in these states had their benefits affected by the family cap. A family's welfare benefits are affected by several factors, including earnings and receipt of child support. Therefore, states were unable to report the precise effect of the family cap on benefits. Because of limitations of the existing research, GAO cannot conclude that family cap policies reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, affect the number of abortions, or change the size of the welfare caseload.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has taken steps to broaden the range of its research to more fully support all the goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. After seeing GAO's recommendation, HHS informed GAO that it is funding additional research on family formation issues. In the Spring of 2003, GAO identified several HHS research projects dedicated to evaluating welfare and out-of-wedlock births and family formation. For example, HHS has funded the following projects: Building Strong Families (a project that evaluates the effectiveness of interventions targeting low-income unwed parents at or near the birth of their child); Evaluating the Implementation of Programs to Strengthen Families with Children Born Out-of-Wedlock; and Helping Unwed Parents Build Strong And Healthy Marriages. HHS has also conducted national listening sessions and published a Federal Register notice inviting public comment about what changes should be made to TANF. During the current reauthorization of TANF, HHS has supported H.R. 4, passed by the House early in 2003, which would give the Secretary of HHS authority to award competitive grants to States, territories, and tribal organizations for up to 50 percent of the cost of developing and implementing innovative programs to promote and support healthy, married, 2-parent families. H.R. 4 also requests an extension for research, demonstration, and evaluation funds through 2008, and continued funds for abstinence education. Along with expanding and supporting family formation research, HHS has taken steps to disseminate the early results of this research. In Spring of 2003, the Administration for Children and Families hosted the Sixth Annual Welfare Reform Evaluation Conference in which an entire day's agenda was targeted to discussing family formation research.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should review its research agenda and, if appropriate, take steps to identify, encourage, and support additional studies that would increase the availability of information on how best to prevent and reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and more fully support the goals of TANF. This additional work could include improving the availability of data to support studies, working with states to identify and disseminate information on relevant promising practices, and supporting rigorous evaluation studies. Having additional research in this area would provide important information to administrators and policymakers and support Congress' efforts to reward states for strategies that succeed in reducing out-of-wedlock births.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Health and Human Services commented that they thought the Administration's legislative proposals for the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) would address the critical role of research in welfare reform, and would request specific levels of funding for research. In large part, the Administration's welfare proposals were included as H.R. 4 passed by the House early in 2003. H.R. 4 included $100 million to conduct research and demonstration projects on family formation related purposes, and a $100 million annual matching program to be spent on specified "healthy marriage" programs with the benefit of reducing out-of-wedlock births. In addition, the bill called for a continuation of funds for abstinence education in order to reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births.

    Recommendation: HHS should provide its research agenda, with estimated resource needs, to Congress for its use as it considers TANF reauthorization, including decisions about the role of HHS in conducting research and the resources HHS needs to fulfill that role. This will help to ensure that the key research and technical assistance needs of this $16.5 billion federal program are met.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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