BACKGROUND: TANF and Sex Education Funding

April 10, 2005
  • Enacted in 1996, in addition to assistance to those moving from welfare to work, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) provides funding for abstinence-only programs for America’s young people. Such programs are required to exclude discussion of contraception and any other method of pregnancy- and disease-prevention besides abstinence.
  • The definition of abstinence-only programs contained in TANF has since been extended to funding for other sex-education programs. Current federal funding for comprehensive sex-education programs is zero while it is more than $130 million annually for abstinence-only programs.
  • The TANF law requires states to match federal abstinence-only funding with $3 for every $4 the federal government expends. Thus, even though the program requires states to invest their own funds, states are given no say in the type of program they may fund with these combined dollars.
  • When the Senate considers legislation to reauthorize the TANF program in the coming weeks, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) is expected to offer an amendment that would allow states flexibility to fund age-appropriate sex education for young people that provides comprehensive information about preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. States that wish to continue providing abstinence-only programs would be free to do so under the Baucus-Chafee amendment.
  • The Baucus-Chafee amendment would not reduce the funding level for programs that teach abstinence. It would simply allow a state to use these funds to put forth the type of abstinence-based program it chooses – be it abstinence-only, or a more traditional sex-ed program that includes abstinence as well as discussion of the benefits of contraception for pregnancy, HIV, and STD prevention.
  • Eleven states have published evaluations of their federally funded abstinence-only programs, with no program producing a lasting, positive impact on teen behavior or attitudes toward sex. Among the six official surveys that measured changes in sexual activity, none showed a long-term decrease in sex among teens while two showed increased levels of sexual activity between the pre- and post-evaluations. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health – which conducted one of the most thorough inquiries into changes in sexual behavior as a result of abstinence-only programs -- found that after spending $5 million over five years, not only had sexual activity among students had increased (doubling among junior-high students between 2001 and 2002), but the intent to become sexually active had nearly doubled as well. Such findings are consistent with independent outside surveys that have been conducted in recent years.
  • The escalation in recent years of federal spending on abstinence-only programs modeled on the TANF program has had international ramifications. The Bush Administration and Congress have required that one-third of all money designated for prevention of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) be spent exclusively on the teaching of an abstinence-only approach. The effect of this restriction has been particularly devastating for women who frequently cannot choose abstinence and for people in impoverished countries who are at risk of contracting HIV becuase of the denial of U.S. resources for the provision of critical tools for disease-prevention, like condoms.
  • The Episcopal Church, USA supports sex-education programs for young people that "include emphasis on abstinence as well as on proven harm and risk reduction strategies." (GC 1997-A047). Particularly in the area of disease-prevention strategies, the Church believes such programs should "discuss frankly the need for fidelity within sexual relationships or abstinence as the only totally safe sexual practices" but also "promote safe sexual practices such as the use of condoms during sexual intercourse." (GC 1988-D104). The Baucus-Chafee amendment moves U.S. policy on sex education closer to the approach advocated by the Episcopal Church.