Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia raised benefits for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in fiscal year 2018 (which began July 1, 2017 in most states) or 2019. (See table.) Still, benefits are at or below 60 percent of the federal poverty line in every state, as our latest report shows. Cash is vital to enable families in poverty to meet basic needs, but TANF benefits have lost considerable purchasing power due to inflation in the 22 years since the program’s creation.
Some recent benefit increases occurred automatically, such as through annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs); others reflect specific state legislative or administrative actions. In five of the 15 states — Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Tennessee — these are the first increases in over a decade.
|States Raising TANF Benefits in Fiscal Year 2018 or 2019|
|Monthly benefit for family of three|
|Benefit After Increase||Amount of Increase||Implementation Date|
|Dist. Of Columbia||$576||$68||October 2017|
|South Carolina||$286||$3||October 2017|
|New Hampshire||$1,039||$18||March 2018|
|New Jersey||$454||$30||July 2018|
|New Mexico||$447||$38||July 2018|
|Dist. Of Columbia||$644||$68||October 2018|
Note: TANF = Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
Source: CBPP-compiled 2018 state benefits
However, 33 states have benefit levels at or below 30 percent of the poverty line, up from 16 states in 1996. And in 18 of those states, benefits are at or below 20 percent of the poverty line — that is, $346 a month for a family of three or less. In addition, the TANF benefit for a family of three is below the estimated cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment and utilities in every state.
Families in poverty often have few or no assets to tap in tough times, and they need cash for basic needs: rent and utilities, personal care items (such as toothpaste, laundry detergent, and diapers), gas or bus fare, and so on. TANF cash assistance helps families afford these basics. Also, a family’s needs may change from one month to the next and, because TANF cash assistance provides direct cash rather than specific goods and services (such as health coverage), it gives them flexibility to use the income in ways that best help their children.
States need to make their TANF benefits more adequate. They should restore the full value of benefits that’s been lost due to inflation since 1996 and any benefit cuts that they made during the Great Recession — even if that requires incremental increases over several years — and they should establish mechanisms to prevent benefits from eroding in the future, such as an automatic COLA.