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TANF at 20, Part 3: States Not Investing in Core Welfare Reform Areas

August 17, 2016 at 12:15 PM

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant on August 22, this blog series will outline key facts about the program. 

States spend only about half of their state and federal TANF funds in the core welfare reform areas of basic assistance, work-related activities, and child care or other work supports.  Indeed, as we noted yesterday, states spent just 7 percent of their TANF funds on work-related activities in 2015 — though policymakers gave states more flexibility on spending under TANF in large part so they could spend more to connect welfare families to work.

Newly available data for 2015 give more detail on how much of their TANF funds states spend outside core welfare reform goals. 

For example, states spent 13 percent of their TANF funds in two areas:  child welfare services (7 percent) and pre-kindergarten or Head Start programs (6 percent).  (See chart.)

Some states spent much more:

  • Five states spent more than one-quarter of their TANF funds on child welfare services.  Georgia, for example, spent half of its TANF funds on child welfare, yet only 2 percent on work-related activities.
  • Four states spent more than one-quarter of their TANF funds on pre-K or Head Start.  Texas, for example, spent 38 percent of its funds on pre-K and Head Start, plus another 37 percent on child welfare services.  Texas spent only 7 percent of its funds on work-related activities.

While pre-K and child welfare services are important, TANF funds shouldn’t pay for them.   Letting states use TANF to address other needs creates incentives for states to provide cash assistance and work services to as few families as possible. 

That’s not what federal policymakers intended when they created the TANF block grant in 1996.  They should require states to direct more of TANF’s limited funds to its core purposes of cash assistance, work opportunities, and work supports, including child care and other services that help families succeed at work.