Published December 11, 2023
A quarter-century after welfare reform, there’s bipartisan interest in improving the system. But the Biden administration’s initial foray has needlessly picked a fight with conservatives over abortion. A gratuitous attempt at advancing leftist ideology by singling out crisis pregnancy centers will make the goal of improving federal anti-poverty programs harder, not easier, to achieve.
In the mid-1990s, Congress passed bipartisan welfare reform that converted the old cash welfare program into buckets of money that went to state and local agencies, known as block grants. Part of the appeal of block grants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) was their ability to give states flexibility in designing anti-poverty programs. In theory, states would be able to act as laboratories of democracy and design programs that responded to local needs and led to greater self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, some of that flexibility has been abused.
The most egregious stories make headlines: You might have heard about the $5 million in TANF funds earmarked for a new volleyball stadium on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, thanks to lobbying from former NFL star Brett Favre (his daughter, as it turns out, was on the team).
But more mundane examples provide a case for reform as well. As recently as 2021, the state of Arizona used 61 percent of its federal TANF block grant to fund child protective services — effectively using federal money aimed at supporting low-income parents to investigate them instead. Nationally, states spend nearly as much of their TANF funds on pre-K and Head Start as they do on work, education, and training activities. And some states, like Mississippi, use a portion of their federal TANF dollars to fund college scholarships for middle-class families, rather than on programs aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty.
Congress has been contemplating action on TANF reform, but the Biden administration decided to short-circuit that by offering a proposed new federal rule. That move alone ruffled congressional feathers, but the administration’s decision to single out groups that provide resources to pregnant moms and their babies has injected abortion politics into anti-poverty policy.
In its discussion of its proposed new approach to TANF funds, the Biden administration specifically calls out pregnancy resources centers, also called crisis pregnancy centers, which provide pregnant women with services such as ultrasounds, medical exams, parenting classes, material assistance, and community resource referrals. They troll conservatives by worrying these centers may not be able to demonstrate that “the expenditure actually accomplishes the TANF purpose.”
Crisis Pregnancy Centers Reduce Dependence
As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleagues Rachel Morrison, Eric Kniffin, and I pointed out in a recent comment we submitted to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, this is ideology masquerading as good government. Crisis pregnancy centers can help provide low-income women with resources, such as childcare assistance referrals, that can make it easier to stay connected to the workforce, reducing dependency. The medical care they provide can help women avoid complications from pregnancy and ensure healthier moms and babies.
Pregnancies that have begun as out-of-wedlock have led to marriage when mothers and fathers are given the support, training, and resources they need for a fresh start. Thus, the goals of the TANF program — reducing poverty, reducing dependence, and encouraging the formation of two-parent families — are, in fact, advanced by the important services pregnancy resource centers provide.
According to Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, four states (Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania) currently include pregnancy resource centers in their TANF programs. This is, apparently, an intolerable state of affairs for the political side of the aisle that sees these services as a threat. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been a vocal critic of these charities, telling a local news station in 2022 that “we need to shut them down all around the country.”
Becerra is sadly no stranger to seeking to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers. When Becerra was state attorney general, he sought to enforce a California law, drafted with the help of Planned Parenthood, that would have required the centers to post large ads for the state’s free abortion program. That law, thankfully, was eventually struck down.
The Biden administration’s proposed rule misunderstands the role of resource centers for pregnant and postpartum moms, as well as their children and families. And targeting them in the name of TANF reform ignores how crucial the services they provide are — perhaps more than ever, given the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The Biden administration shouldn’t turn TANF reform into a culture war football. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Angela Rachidi wrote during the last congressional round of TANF negotiations, “In some cases, TANF gave states too much flexibility and they never developed the robust assistance and work programs that were envisioned. In other instances, too little flexibility was provided, requiring that states spend time and resources counting hours rather than helping people find employment.” Curbing abuses and finding the right balance between flexibility and accountability can, and should, be a bipartisan effort.
But those efforts will be fatally undermined if anti-poverty reform is used as an excuse to go after groups seeking to provide women facing an unexpected pregnancy with material and social support. It’s one thing for leftist lawmakers to complain about pregnancy resource centers “torturing” pregnant women by providing them diapers, mentorship, child care assistance, and health care services. It’s quite another to seek to turn those resentments into law, and thereby poison the well of finding ways to improve the way America fights poverty.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.