BEYOND THE NUMBERS
TANF: A Safety Net for Few Poor Families
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), the cornerstone of 1996’s welfare reform, is far from the success that some conservative policymakers claim. It provided a temporary safety net in the form of cash benefits to only 26 families for every 100 in poverty in 2013, as we explain in a new paper.
This ratio, which we call the TANF-to-poverty ratio (TPR), has fallen nearly every year since 1996 and reached its low point of 25 in 2012. It’s down substantially from the 68 families for every 100 in poverty that received cash assistance when TANF was first enacted in 1996 (see chart).
While the national TPR highlights how much the cash safety net for families has weakened since TANF’s start, it tells only part of the story since this ratio varies widely among states, ranging from a low of 4 to a high of 66. In ten states, the ratio is less than 10, meaning that for every 100 families living in poverty, fewer than 10 receive TANF cash assistance. Many states in recent years have made policy and administrative changes that have significantly cut their TANF caseloads, even as families struggled financially during and after the Great Recession.
The data show that this is a weaker safety net: welfare reform has put poor families — and especially their children — at risk of much greater hardship with the potential for long-term negative consequences. We’ll have more to say soon about steps that federal and state policymakers can take to strengthen TANF.