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off the charts

Building a Better TANF Program


LaDonna Pavetti, the Center’s Vice President for Family Income Support Programs, spoke yesterday at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress to assess the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — what it’s accomplished, where it’s falling short, and how policymakers could strengthen it.

She explained that:

  • TANF provides an important safety net for unemployed or underemployed families.  But it reaches few families in need, and it provides minimal cash assistance to the families it does reach (see chart).

  • TANF agencies spend more now than before the 1996 welfare reform law to support work, but there is a mismatch between TANF recipients’ employment assistance needs, labor market realities, and the design of most states’ work programs.
  • The TANF Work Participation Rate — a measure of TANF recipients’ work activity — hinders, rather than encourages, states’ efforts to help TANF recipients find better jobs that will last.
  • The lessons of the TANF Emergency Fund — $5 billion provided through the 2009 Recovery Act to help families through the recession — should not be forgotten.  The subsidized jobs programs that states operated were a bright spot during a time of significant need.
  • The TANF block grant is worth 30 percent less now than when TANF was created and the diminishing resources are increasingly used to fill state budget holes at the expense of the most vulnerable families.

Click here for the video of the full event and here for our chart book that takes a closer look at TANF’s successes and failures.