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Contact: Gabriel Vasquez
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Twenty years after its enactment, TANF has lost its buying power

Children on the Ballot
Federal Budget
Poverty & Family Economics

Washington – Once intended to be the nation’s most innovative anti-poverty program, the only federal cash assistance program designed to help lift families out of poverty has languished and lost its buying power.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) turns 20 this month, and children and anti-poverty advocates across the board have expressed serious concern about the program’s future if left unreformed. Since its inception, the value of TANF has decreased by 32 percent due to inflation.

“The bottom line is that children are suffering because as a fixed block grant, TANF no longer has the impact on children that it had 20 years ago when it was created,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children, a nonpartisan children’s advocacy organization. “Congress, as well as the incoming administration, must take a holistic approach to TANF reform and have a meaningful discussion about what it will take to make this program help families achieve economic mobility, as it was originally designed.”

In a blog co-authored by First Focus Campaign for Children and The Child Welfare League of America, policy analysts make the case that child poverty reduction must be an explicit goal of future TANF reform. Since the 1996 welfare law, the number of children in “deep poverty” – family income below half the federal poverty level – increased from 1.5 to 2.2 million, an alarming statistic that calls for a TANF overhaul.

In a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, researchers cite TANF’s tough work requirements, time limits, and block grant infrastructure as other limiting factors that prevent the poorest of children from accessing funding. Additionally, the states’ discretion to spend its TANF block grant funding on its own priorities rather than cash assistance directly for families, has severally hampered the effectiveness of the program.

“States should evaluate the effectiveness of the way they’re spending their TANF dollars and make the necessary adjustments to ensure they’re serving poor children and families, instead of using it to plug budget holes in other programs,” Lesley said.

The First Focus Campaign for Children and Child Welfare League of America make outline the following recommendations to Congress for TANF reform:

  • Make child poverty reduction an explicit goal of TANF reform
  • Allow states to use TANF funds to help families pursue higher education, skills training, and vocational education that leads to quality employment
  • States should have to collect and assess the necessary data to ensure the effectiveness of their TANF programs to reduce child poverty
  • TANF should be reformed to be more responsive during times of economic downturn
  • TANF resources must be increased to reflect inflation since its inception 20 years ago

For more information about these recommendations and other policy issues that impact children, read The Voices for Kids Blog.


The First Focus Campaign for Children is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with First Focus, a nonpartisan children’s advocacy organization. The Campaign for Children advocates directly for legislative change in Congress to ensure children and families are a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. For more information, visit