TANF at 22

Poverty & Family Economics

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the only federal program that provides cash assistance to families.

Cash assistance is critical to reducing child poverty and improving child well-being. Numerous studies show that when families receive an influx of money, it has positive effects for healthy child development, including academic achievement and educational attainment.

While the overwhelming majority of TANF recipients are children, the effectiveness of TANF in reducing child poverty has been diminishing over time. Just under 25 percent of all poor families with children receive cash assistance today.

Due to its nature as a fixed block grant, TANF is not able to be effective in responding during times of increased need and the block grant has fallen in value by over 30 percent due to inflation since 1996.

In addition, most TANF funds no longer actually go towards cash assistance. In fact, states overwhelmingly use TANF funds for a number of other priorities other than its original intent: reducing child poverty and getting families back to work. For the funds that are allocated towards cash assistance, monthly amounts are often not enough to lift children out of poverty, and states have placed harsh restrictions on these small amounts, such as strict work requirements and time-limits that severely limit access to these funds.

TANF is long overdue for reauthorization. Earlier this summer, the House Ways and Means Committee passed the Jobs and Opportunity with Benefits and Services (JOBS) for Success Act (H.R. 5861), which would reauthorize the program for five years and make some significant changes.

One change is the addition of child poverty reduction as an explicit goal of TANF.  While this is a positive step in the right direction, the provisions included in the bill would not actually significantly strengthen TANF’s ability to reduce child poverty.  The bill fails to provide an increase in funding for the block grant or improve upon the responsiveness of TANF during times of increased need. Without improvements to these aspects of the program, TANF’s ability to reduce child poverty remains limited.

Members of the Child Poverty Action Group, a partnership of organizations dedicated to reducing child poverty, urged the House Ways and Means Committee to strengthen TANF’s ability to reduce child poverty through establishing a national goal of cutting child poverty in half within a decade and eliminating it within 20 years. This would be a significant step towards holding federal, state, and local governments accountable to reducing child poverty in the U.S. through TANF and other programs.

In addition, the U.S. Child Poverty Action group recently released Our Kids, Our Future, a compendium of more than 20 policy papers with solutions to addressing child poverty in the U.S.  Two of these papers provide recommendations for improving TANF through increasing funding, requiring states to spend funds on cash assistance and other core purposes, and more.

Reaching economic security is a long road for many families. While parents and caregivers are working towards upward mobility, we need to ensure that every family is provided with enough cash assistance to provide sufficient resources for children while their brains are undergoing critical stages of development.

For more information on TANF reform from the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group:

Children Living in Poverty Need TANF Reform

A Child Focused Approach to TANF Reform

Reducing Child Poverty Through Income Supports