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Fixing TANF


Testifying at today’s House hearing on improving welfare programs, LaDonna Pavetti, CBPP Vice President for Family Income Support Policy, explained that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) does little to help families find work and escape poverty.  She also suggested policy changes to improve TANF’s ability to reach families in need and improve their employment prospects.  Here’s an excerpt:

We have observed over the last 18 years how TANF performed in both good and bad times.  The labor market was extraordinarily strong in TANF’s early years, while in more recent years it has been one of the worst on record.  When assessing TANF’s accomplishments, it is important to consider how it has performed over the full period.  Proponents use data from TANF’s early years (through 2000) to tout TANF as a resounding success, but that view ignores what has happened during the last 14 years. 

To be sure,  TANF’s early years were marked by unprecedented declines in the number of families receiving cash assistance — and unprecedented increases in the share of single mothers working, especially those with a high school education or less.  But since then, TANF’s record has been dismal.  TANF provides basic assistance to few families in need and responded only modestly to the significant increase in unemployment nationally during and after the Great Recession — and not at all in a number of states, including some of those hardest hit.   

Taking into account the full 18 years of TANF’s history, here are five key facts that I would encourage the Committee to keep in mind in considering how to improve TANF programs to help more families find work and escape poverty: 

  • TANF provides cash assistance to very few needy families.
  • TANF lifts far fewer children out of deep poverty (incomes below half of the poverty line) than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), did. 
  • States spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.   
  • Most of the early employment gains among never-married single mothers after TANF’s creation have been lost. 
  • The success of “work first” programs, which emphasize getting participants into the labor market quickly, is vastly overstated.  Although employment increased, the vast majority of were not stably employed.

Click here for the full testimony.