What does the commandment that we love our neighbor mean? During Holy Week—when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus—I’ve been thinking about that topic.
I’ve also been thinking about it as I review proposed legislation in the Texas House, where I serve. The assistance we render to needy Texans—who are also our neighbors—must be personal, active and effective.
Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the commandment. In the Gospel of Luke, an “expert in the law” asked Jesus who his neighbor was. Jesus then told the story of a man who was set upon by thieves. They beat him, robbed him and left him for dead. Two religious officials passed by, but neither helped. Then a Samaritan passed by. The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews, yet this Samaritan stopped and helped.
As the Gospel of Luke tells us, “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34, NIV). He even left money with the innkeepers to pay the man’s expenses, promising to make good if costs ran over.
The Samaritan loved his neighbor—but that love wasn’t an emotion, it was an act. He provided assistance that was personal, active and effective. That’s the model I try to implement whenever possible. As the wise Marvin Olasky reminds us, the Latin root of the word “compassion” is “to suffer with.” It’s not enough to simply pass by our neighbors and assume that either they’re beyond help, or that it’s someone else’s problem. We must come alongside them.
That brings me to the Texas TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. This vital program provides cash assistance for struggling Texas families with children. TANF is a federal program administered by the states. Unfortunately, it’s too often administered in an ineffective fashion across the country.
As such, Texas needs to lead for the nation. It begins with ensuring that TANF dollars are used effectively. That’s why I have filed House Bill 1516, which would require the Health and Human Services Commission to conduct an independent efficiency audit of TANF in 2022, and every six years thereafter. Assistance isn’t assistance if it’s not reaching the families in need; nor is it help if it doesn’t achieve the goals set out for the program.
TANF (which came out of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996) has four specific goals. It is meant to:
- Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives.
- End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.
- Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
- Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
Yet the Pew organization reports that “over time, instead of focusing on helping low-income people get jobs, TANF has devolved into a kind of candy store that many states are raiding to plug budget holes and pay for programs that have little to do with moving poor people into the workforce…”
A review of the most recent data says that states spend only 11 percent of TANF funds on work-related activities including education and training.
The most tragic finding of the report is this: “Just 1 in 4 TANF cases close because clients found jobs. Others close because people have lost eligibility, failed to comply with requirements or for other reasons.”
In Texas, we spend one-third of our TANF dollars on child welfare services provided through the Department of Family and Protective Services—more than half of that going to administration, staffing and operations, instead of helping children directly.
We can do better, and it begins by ensuring we are spending TANF money properly. That can only be done with a third-party efficiency audit. What if we spent more TANF funds to keep kids out of foster care by helping needy families become self-sufficient or we were able to provide more significant direct financial benefits from these resources to these families and their children.
Addressing immediate needs is important, but we want to look beyond that, and provide families with opportunity—and hope. There’s much more we can do to help needy Texans, and I’m eager to have those conversations. But a good start for the current legislative session is my bill that will help make sure that the scarce taxpayer money we’re already spending now is being spent well by using these resources as they were intended while helping families achieve permanent self-sufficiency.
State Rep. Tan Parker represents District 63 (a portion of Denton County) in the Texas House of Representatives.