SALEM, Ore. -

Oregon prioritized making cash payments to the state’s poorest families during the Great Recession, but as the economy recovers, the state could do more to help move clients toward jobs and self-sufficiency, according to a new audit released Wednesday by the secretary of state’s office.

“During the recession, the Legislature made the right decision to prioritize financial assistance to families living in poverty,” said Secretary of State Kate Brown. “Now as we pull out of the recession, we need to do everything we can to help the most vulnerable Oregonians participate in Oregon’s economic recovery.”

Oregon’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program sends monthly cash payments of approximately $500 to about 35,000 Oregon families with children under 18, most headed by single mothers. The clients are among the poorest of the poor, with 96 percent not earning any income at all.

The Department of Human Services runs the Oregon TANF program, which is intended to stabilize families and help parents find work and become more independent. In exchange for cash payments, parents are supposed to participate in job search activities or pursue steps such as mental health or addiction treatment to help them overcome barriers to work.

In response to the recession, the Legislature increased TANF’s overall budget to extend cash payments to more families. But with state revenues declining, the Legislature also cut expenditures for client services in 2011, significantly reducing job training and other options available to parents. 

The auditors recommend that DHS work with the Legislature and governor to revisit budget and program decisions made during the recession, study the costs and benefits of raising the income eligibility for clients who find work, raise expectations of clients, build stronger partnerships with Coordinated Care Organizations and other groups to improve client services, and use available data to better track client progress and evaluate the TANF program’s performance.

DHS is adding about 160 new caseworkers, which should help improve case management.

“Our audit is a first step to improving vital services for Oregon’s neediest parents,” said Secretary Brown. “I look forward to working with the Legislature, governor, Department of Human Services and those who advocate for Oregonians living in poverty.”

TANF receives federal government funding and a state match, with the total budget for the Oregon program at roughly $500 million this biennium. Growth in Oregon’s TANF program led the nation from 2007 to 2013, and overall spending and caseloads increased, hitting up to 200 families per case manager.

That approach sent aid to far more families in deep poverty.  At last count, Oregon provided benefits to a higher proportion of poor families than 41 other states, giving more parents a leg up to stabilize their households.

But the service cuts and caseload growth have limited the program’s ability to move those clients to greater independence. The cuts included reductions to subsidized child care and to health care contractors who evaluated clients and helped them find providers.

The auditors found that Oregon clients spend relatively few hours in self-sufficiency activities and some had gaps of a year or more in case records when they were not asked to do anything. In June 2013, the auditors’ test month, two thirds of clients recorded no activity. 

“We highlighted some of the successful efforts we found in Oregon and other states to help these families,” said Gary Blackmer, director of the Oregon Audits Division. “With the economy recovering, it’s also a good time for the Legislature to revisit budget and program decisions made during the recession.”

The improved economy is gradually reducing TANF cases, but not fast enough to get back to pre-recession levels for many years.

“I’m looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and helping parents get the services they need so that they can get back to work,” said Brown. 

The audit can be found at: http://sos.oregon.gov/audits/Documents/2014-08.pdf