The Core—A Cutting Edge Blog Series Getting to the Core of Modern TANF Reform (Part 2)

A Tangible Illustration of the Promise of TANF

By Justin Brown    May 26, 2022


I have a standard anchoring message when beginning this conversation, regardless of the audience. “Aggressively addressing poverty is the greatest single opportunity for our society; however, because of the scale and complexity of the challenge, a solution can feel completely out of reach.” To personalize the global issue of widespread poverty, I have recently used an illustration that is effective in connecting to poverty and allows us to imagine a framework for building a solution.

An Illustration

Chutes and Ladders

A classic board game from our childhoods, Chutes and Ladders, aligns boxes along a game board that represent each of our individual goals. Sometimes, a ladder will advance the player multiple levels towards our desired outcomes. In our lives, these ladders can be represented by a new workforce certification, an educational degree, a marriage, or a promotion at work. In other situations, a player can hit a chute, represented in life by events like a catastrophic health emergency, a death in the family, loss of a job, or the devastating effects of a worldwide pandemic. These chutes can set an individual back decades in their advancement towards their goals, and often they are present due to no fault of the person themselves.

Our public response to support people through life's inevitable ups and downs, as it exists today, resembles a one-size-fits-all approach that sits under the game board. It catches people from falling off the board but sets them right back at the beginning of the game. This approach requires a person to fall to a deep level of despair to actively reach out for help from the government. A better approach would deploy smaller, more nimble, custom supports that meet people where they are, engaging them with strategic interventions that target each person's specific needs. This customization should allow for the system to work in a preventive way, meeting families before they reach deep crisis, putting them back on the board as close to the space from which they fell as possible.

Deploying resources to quickly catch and replace each person as high as possible on the board is important for a variety of reasons. First, it preserves the dignity of that person who had earned their respective space on the board through years of hard work. Second, it represents a transformative multi-generational approach, allowing subsequent generations to start from the shoulders of a parent on space '43' rather than one on space '3.' Third, a more strategic approach is more cost-efficient for taxpayers and therefore more sustainable.

Building a Customized, Prevention-Focused System

The development of a more precise, custom system that intervenes to help families before they fall into crisis requires that we rethink both the actual programs and resources we provide and the distribution model it takes to deliver those resources.

A custom system redesigns and coordinates programs built to help families elevate themselves out of poverty, but that were launched in different decades with unintentionally developed barriers to entry and narrow benefits cliffs that keep Americans teetering on hopelessness. Instead, we can focus on designing programs that complement each other with a dedicated focus that not only addresses basic needs like food and housing, but also addresses higher needs that build the scaffolding for a family's success like well-designed, robust educational resources and workforce programs. With this framework, we open up pathways to a diverse, thriving, and innovative economy that keeps Americans and their needs at the center of its design.

As our systems evaluate these program modernizations, there is opportunity for us to rebuild a distribution model that meets customers where they are, instead of requiring them to fall to a certain level of despair to access help from state government. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) is pioneering a new distribution model that deploys hundreds of caseworkers committed to serving the community within partner locations. Now, instead of having to humble yourself to walk into an OKDHS office, you can meet a caseworker at a hospital, school, homeless shelter, or mental health provider. We are meeting our customers where they are, and our community is embracing us as true partners in ways we have never seen. OKDHS has also built the 'Community Hope Center' platform, co-locating services and resources to remove barriers that exist that keep people from engaging consistently in the pathways available for them to lift themselves out of poverty. Bridging workforce programs with resources like on-site child care, food and housing, on-site health and mental health programs, and direct support for workforce coaching and financial literacy is core to the services offered at a Community Hope Center.

TANF Can Scale a Custom System

On the table in Washington is the reauthorization of a potentially critical resource with incredible promise in helping communities reach these ambitions. The opportunity ahead is to reauthorize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) by including person-centered scaffolding to serve communities where they are. This scaffolding can help our neighbors lift people out of poverty and attain family-sustaining wages through coordinated resource deployment, aligned success metrics rooted in real outcomes, and accountability for agencies and participants.

In my conversations on TANF reauthorization, I elevate one element of the APHSA series of bipartisan developed recommendations above all others. The most exciting opportunity in my opinion is to co-design Career and Family Success Plans with participants, resolving short-term needs while developing a pathway to exiting poverty. This pathway creates hope, allows for true collaboration in defining success, and gives governments the tools to help resolve barriers to advancement and to structure accountability for participants and protection for taxpayers.

The development of Career and Family Success Plans have the potential to allow for agencies and community organizations to develop individualized assessments alongside participants that consider families' economic, social, emotional, and physical well-being. They allow our systems to measure progress towards goals that promote upward mobility and impact long-term, multi-generational movements out of poverty.

These plans will also allow TANF to become the funding bridge connecting dozens of readily available programs to promote upward mobility, but because of siloed structures developed over the generations, they don't currently allow for true coordination of resources. To be said plainly, TANF has the promise to be the 'connective tissue' for all other systems of support, which is necessary in states' efforts to be effective in addressing poverty.

Rethinking the resources we provide and the distribution model we deploy in reaching our customers should build a resilient community, poised to address poverty's devastating impact on our future generations. Development of Career and Family Success Plans in the structure of TANF is the most exciting development ahead in creating a custom health and human services system and addressing multi-generational poverty—the greatest opportunity in America.

Read additional posts from the TANF Modernization Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4

About the Author

Justin Brown

Brown serves as Secretary of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. He is also a member of APHSA’s Executive Governing Board and Chair of the Leadership Council.


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