Work requirements don’t work for domestic violence survivors – but Michigan data shows they rarely get waivers they should receive for cash assistance

June 5, 2023

The big idea

Very few people who have survived domestic violence are getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) waivers from the work requirements and time limits tied to those benefits – even though they’re eligible for them, according to our new research.

State governments administer the federal TANF program, commonly known as welfare or cash assistance, in accordance with their own guidelines. Federal law allows states to grant domestic violence waivers to TANF recipients when time limits, work requirements and other policies increase their risk of abuse or would unfairly penalize victims of abuse. Without a waiver, people who receive these benefits can only get TANF benefits for a limited time, which can’t exceed a total of five years, and they must document the completion of up to 120 hours a month of “work activities,” according to a complex compliance formula.

We examined annual reports from Michigan to the federal government on the number of domestic violence waivers it issued from 2008 to 2021. Even when the number of approved TANF applications increased, as occurred at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of domestic violence waivers issued remained flat.

In recent years, an average of 12,600 families in Michigan received TANF benefits in a typical month. More than 75% were female-led single-parent households. Since studies have found that 25% to 50% of women who get these benefits have experienced domestic violence, we would expect at least 750 to 1,000 women getting this assistance to be experiencing domestic violence or to have recently left a violent relationship.

Instead, the state has only issued a total of from seven to 36 waivers per year for the past decade.

Our estimates of how many domestic violence waivers should be issued exclude men and transgender and binary people due to a lack of relevant research.

To better understand what causes this discrepancy, we conducted focus groups with TANF caseworkers in 10 Michigan counties. They said they got no training on what domestic violence does to survivors’ ability to work, or guidance on when to grant the waivers. They also said there were no standard screening practices.

They also told us that survivors typically have to request waivers – even though by offering the waivers, Michigan has agreed to certify that TANF applicants and recipients are notified that they are available.

The caseworkers also said that domestic violence survivors who didn’t meet TANF work requirements often lost their benefits.

Why it matters

People who have experienced domestic violence can have trouble finding and keeping jobs because of physical injuries and their abusers’ efforts to sabotage their employment.

Denying waivers to survivors can hinder their ability to gain financial independence and could place them at risk for returning to their abusive partner as a way to meet their housing and child care needs.

The debt-ceiling deal struck between the White House and Republican leaders now pending in Congress would exempt people who are experiencing homelessness, former foster youth and veterans from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements. Known as SNAP, that program provides low-income people with money they must spend on groceries.

Our findings show that even with exemptions in place for at-risk groups, people who are eligible for such exceptions do not automatically get them.

That same deal also includes provisions that may encourage states to further restrict TANF waivers by setting stricter overall work requirement goals for all parents who get this aid.

What other work is being done

In states with more lenient work requirements, such as not immediately stopping benefits when people miss work requirement targets, and more generous financial incentives, people who get TANF benefits tend to have better and higher-paying jobs when they exit the program. In contrast, recent research indicates that taking TANF benefits away from domestic violence survivors can increase the risk that they will experience further abuse.

What’s next

We plan to expand our analysis to include the entire country and to see how waivers can be successfully used to help domestic violence survivors escape poverty.

Kristina Nikolova is a Research Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Windsor, and Adjunct Professor of Social Work, Wayne State University

Andrea Hetling is Associate Director, John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development
Co-Principal Investigator, New Jersey State Policy Lab, Faculty Affiliate, Center for Research on Ending Violence and Professor of Public Policy at the Bloustein School

The Conversation, June 2, 2023

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