In researching the 26-year-old Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program recently, we had the chance to talk with Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, a University of Utah research professor who has spent the last 23 years in a state-funded project to interview TANF clients and share results with agency management and senior leadership.
“My role, which I really appreciate, has been in kind of translating what folks who are experiencing the program say and helping the people that run the program better understand what the impact is on the frontline,” Vogel-Ferguson told us.
The long-running interview effort stands out. As we wrote in our June 13 Route Fifty column, there have been too few efforts at evaluating and assessing the results that the TANF program has produced.
A PhD in Social Work, Vogel-Ferguson also has directed research studies and program evaluations with state and regional level government agencies and is the principal investigator of studies on other topics, including refugee support, employment of formerly chronically homeless individuals and the implementation of trauma informed approaches.
The following Q&A has been edited from a conversation in late May.
B&G: You’ve been involved with the University of Utah Social Research Institute project to interview TANF individuals for more than two decades. Could you sum up what the purpose was for state government?
Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson: The Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) wanted to get a better profile of who is seeking benefits and also find out what part of the program is working or not. I started 23 years ago and the process itself started a couple of years before that.
I give the department all the credit. They recognized that they didn’t really know who they were serving. They needed a better sense of their customer base.
B&G: Could you explain to us how the Utah survey approach has changed since this research started?
Mary Beth: At the beginning, we were only talking with people who reached Utah’s 36-month time limit. Those are the ones who had the most struggles. It was not representative of the whole population.
You have hundreds and hundreds of people who come in, get a little help, get what they need, move on and never come back. In 2006, we started interviewing people as they began their experience, then we went back 12 months later and then 12 months after that to be able to see what changed over time.
We went through this process twice – once starting in 2006 and then again in 2012. We started another set in 2018, with the last person interviewed on January 28, 2020, just before Covid.
I am not sure of plans for the future.
B&G: We know that when TANF began there was still a lot of concern about “long-termers”, individuals who become dependent on cash assistance that they collect without having to work. That was a big part of the political drive to reform Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the current federal program, which has a federal five-year lifetime limit, with shorter time limits in some states, like Utah. Were the concerns about welfare dependency justified?
Mary Beth: Everybody was worried about the long-termers. But the reality is that very few people hit time limits.
We found the concerns were not anywhere near reality.
The perception was that people stay on benefits as long as they possibly can. But of the individuals we interviewed in 2006, only 20% were still on TANF twelve months later, with only 12% receiving cash assistance twelve months after that. The vast majority of people had come and gone.
The data has remained very much the same.
B&G: Have your surveys told you why people leave the program?
Mary Beth: People don’t necessarily like being on benefits. They use them for the time they need them and then they get back on their feet.
In some cases, you lose people because the services you provide don’t match with the services they need.
B&G: How big is the variation in what people need?
Actually, we found that the population is very diverse and thus have very different needs. About 25% of the people come in with so many issues and so many barriers, the idea of complete self-sufficiency, probably even in their lifetime, isn’t realistic. And then you have another 25% who have dealt with whatever crisis led them to seek benefits and they’re ready to launch into employment. They just need help with their resume and interviewing skills. Often when they encounter a TANF system that has them jumping through all these hoops, they feel like they’re going backwards.
B&G: Nationally, the percentage of families who receive TANF cash benefits is low. According to the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities, for every 100 families living in poverty, only 21 received cash assistance from TANF in 2019/2020. In Utah, the number of families receiving assistance is even lower: Just 9 families for every 100 families living in poverty. Why aren’t more parents accessing cash benefits?
Mary Beth: Well, I think Utah is low for a couple of reasons. One of them is that there's an incredible social services system run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So, there's a lot of social supports that come through that program and that makes a difference. While the bulk of the supports go to LDS church members, sometimes others can also access this assistance.
But there’s also a mismatch between what many people need and what the programs have to offer. And so that's a challenge. There are a lot of people who don’t access any services You really do need a certain level of functioning --or some good supports -- to get on benefits. It can be confusing and overwhelming. Because of this, and many other reasons, a large segment of people living in deep poverty never access benefits.
B&G: Have policy or management changes in Utah come from what you’ve learned from your interviews?
Mary Beth: Yes. People told us that one of the most precarious times is when they are moving from cash assistance into work. Utah instituted a program called “Transitional Cash Assistance.” It enabled workers to continue on full benefits for two and a half months after they got a job so that they could bridge the time between relying on cash assistance and income. There are so many companies that don’t provide pay until two or three weeks after you start.
Another program was Work Success, which was targeted at the 25% who came in ready to work. Instead of tying them into volunteer programs or other ways to fill required work time, they engaged them in a program that was focused on resume writing, interview skills, building self-esteem and other things that might bridge them back into the workforce again.”
B&G: Your most recent research report on the latest interview findings shows an improved relationship between Utah caseworkers, employment counselors and customers. Did your interviews with TANF customers contribute to that improvement?
Mary Beth: Yes. They helped us focus on what we’ve learned about adverse childhood experiences and early childhood trauma and the link between that and being on cash assistance. The difference between the general population in Utah and the folks on TANF was just mind-blowing and it really created an ‘Aha moment.’
There’s a strong correlation between early childhood trauma and ending up on cash assistance.
B&G: Could you explain more about what you see as a correlation?
Mary Beth: It’s what we now know about how childhood trauma (and of course adult experiences) can affect the brain and the body. It’s not just about getting people motivated or trying to improve their work ethic. They might have executive functioning skill challenges. They might really have physical health problems or immune system deficiencies that come out in adulthood.
These outcomes can occur when you have childhood trauma and your body has been repeatedly flooded with cortisol. We knew it was important for caseworkers to have a better understanding of how this all works.
B&G: How did you communicate what you learned?
Mary Beth: We did workshops with the caseworkers in the agency. It was wonderful because we were able to use the stories and the experiences of the clients. We were able to help them see that it’s not about blaming the person but understanding where they’re at and seeing what could be done to support their customer in moving forward.
We used stories we heard to point out where workers had made a difference in a positive way, as well as when what they did made it more difficult.