Twenty Three Years of TANF

By Laura Walling, GII senior director of government affairs, advocacy & legislative affairs

This week the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program turns 23. A human services program that provides assistance temporarily to families with children in poverty has been proven to be both vital to short- and long-term success for families and children. Yet, it is falling short of providing critical assistance where needed as thousands of families with children with the lowest incomes are not getting access. Since TANF was created by Congress and enacted 23 years ago on August 22, 1996, its reach has declined significantly. Its cash benefits provide critical support for families with no or very low incomes that could not only help cover parents’ and children’s basic needs today, but also help create stability for these children to thrive in the future. These parents are also missing out on TANF work programs that could connect them to a job.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2017, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, only an average of 23 families received assistance – down from 68 families when TANF was first enacted. Generally, this “TANF-to-poverty ratio” (TPR) has dropped over time because TANF caseloads have fallen more than the number of families living in poverty has. This is partly due to state policy and administrative changes that have made TANF less accessible to the families that need it, such as strict eligibility requirements or time limits for assistance. In addition, caseloads have also failed to keep up with increases in poverty, such as during and after the Great Recession.

Receiving monthly direct financial assistance helps parents afford necessities such as diapers, personal hygiene items and winter coats, helping them raise their children with greater dignity and stability. According to numerous studies, having access to a stable income also can improve children’s well-being and long-term outcomes.

Congress should change TANF incentives to increase access and require states to invest more of their TANF funds to serve families who need the support that TANF provides to improve their current circumstances. While TANF is most often associated with income assistance in the form of cash, in actuality, states have broad authority to determine the purpose and method of the program’s implementation. As such, it is ultimately up to the states to improve how well they serve the poorest families with respect to access to benefits and services, spending choices and how they help connect families to opportunity.

Nearly 35,000 individuals were referred to local Goodwill® organizations from the TANF system last year. Goodwills can play a strong partner in the TANF system. While some policymakers and other stakeholders may disagree about how to take care of those most in need, our many viewpoints can come together to see that everyone be afforded the chance to create their path to independence – strengthening TANF is one tool in the toolbox to accomplish just that.