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TANF at 22: TANF Helping Fewer and Fewer Poor Families

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Twenty-two years ago this week, on August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed a law creating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant and radically restructuring cash assistance for families with children living in poverty. Our week-long blog series examines TANF’s role — and its performance — in helping parents work and in providing modest but crucial anti-poverty support. Today’s post shows that TANF provides a safety net for very few families.

The TANF block grant is supposed provide a temporary safety net to poor families, primarily those with no other means to meet basic needs. But the reach of cash assistance has declined dramatically over time. In 2016, for every 100 families in poverty, only 23 received cash assistance from TANF — down from 68 families when TANF was first enacted. This TANF-to-poverty ratio (TPR) reached its lowest point in 2014 and remained there in 2015 and 2016, the latest years for which we have these data.

This interactive map and chart highlight the decline of TANF cash assistance as measured by the TPR, both nationally and in individual states.




During TANF’s early years, when the economy was strong and employment among never-married mothers rose, TANF caseloads fell more than the number of poor families, causing the TPR to drop.  More recently, the continued decline in the TPR reflects a caseload decline that’s outpaced the decline in poverty.  Nationwide, the number of families in poverty fell by 3 percent between 2006 and 2016, while the national TANF caseload fell by 28 percent, from 1.9 million families to fewer than 1.4 million. 

Moreover, the national TPR misses the extreme — and growing — variation among states. In 2016 the TPR ranged from 66 in California to 4 in Louisiana. As we noted yesterday, 15 states have TPRs of 10 or less, meaning that 10 or fewer families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.

TANF’s limited reach means that families that hit upon hard times because they’ve lost a job, are fleeing domestic violence, or face a health or mental health crisis have no access to cash assistance that can help them get back on their feet.

TANF has failed in other ways as well. As the posts in this series explain, benefits for families who manage to receive TANF cash assistance do too little to help them meet basic needs, and TANF’s work programs have had little success in helping parents lift themselves out of poverty through work. These problems partly reflect the fact that states have diverted a large share of their TANF dollars away from the core welfare reform areas of cash assistance and work. For an overview of TANF, see our updated chart book and backgrounder.

Ife Floyd

Director of TANF Research and Analysis