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TANF at 20, Part 2: Failing to Help Most Unemployed Parents Find and Maintain Work

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. 

Policymakers created the TANF block grant in large part to give states more flexibility to help cash assistance recipients find and maintain work so they’d no longer need assistance.  If states had more flexibility, proponents argued, they could take funds previously used for cash grants and use them to help recipients find jobs and to cover the costs of work supports like child care and transportation assistance.  But, the evidence shows, states haven’t lived up to this expectation: 

  • States devote very few of their TANF resources to work activities.  States spent only 7 percent of their state and federal TANF funds on job search, education, training, and other work activities in 2015, and only 17 percent on child care assistance.  Some states spent even less.  Eighteen states spent less than 5 percent of their TANF funds on work activities; 14 states spent less than 5 percent on child care assistance.
  • TANF reaches few nonworking families.  Nearly 4 million single mothers were unemployed at some point during 2014, yet only 1.6 million families received TANF in an average month (see chart).  This means that most single mothers who needed help finding jobs didn’t have access to the employment opportunities and work supports that TANF is supposed to provide.  In 1995, in contrast, the number of families receiving cash assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TANF’s predecessor) in an average month exceeded the number of unemployed single mothers.
  • Parents who leave TANF generally don’t fare well in the labor market over the long term.  Though welfare reform proponents claim that TANF has a strong track record in moving families to work, we have almost no recent data on this issue — and the data we do have finds that former TANF recipients who get stable employment and raise their earnings are the exception, not the norm.  A recent study of almost 5,000 Maryland families found that in the fifth year after leaving TANF, 46 percent didn’t work at all or worked in just one quarter of the year, up from 39 percent with little or no work in the first year after leaving TANF.  The share with no job rose substantially between the first and fifth year, from 27 percent to 37 percent of former recipients.  Only 8 percent of former recipients earned more than the federal poverty threshold for a family of three in all five years. 

Work requirements are a central theme of conservative proposals to reduce poverty.  But 20 years of work requirements under TANF show that work requirements not accompanied by meaningful investments to help people improve their education and skills and gain work experience do little to reduce poverty and make many of the poorest families even poorer