BEYOND THE NUMBERS
TANF at 23: States Have Boosted TANF Benefits, But There’s Room to Do More
In replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant 23 years ago, policymakers promised all families living in poverty a better economic future by providing temporary financial support, along with job preparation and work support. TANF has fallen far short in fulfilling this promise, particularly in states where Black families are likelier to live. It can, and must, do better. Our week-long blog series examines TANF’s role — and its performance — in providing modest but crucial anti-poverty support.
Some 17 states and the District of Columbia have increased cash assistance to families under TANF since 2017. For five of them, it was the first time doing so in over a decade. Other states have structured benefit levels to lift families out of deep poverty, which is less than $889 a month for a family of three in the 48 contiguous states. While these steps are good news for TANF families struggling to meet their basic needs, states can and should do more as most states’ benefit levels remain extremely low.
Some states’ grant increases were historic. Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and Tennessee raised benefits for the first time in over ten years. California and New Hampshire have taken concrete steps to ensure that their grants lift a family of three out of deep poverty and will annually adjust to protect the grants’ value. In 2018 California policymakers approved gradually raising the grant to 50 percent of the poverty line and set a cost-of-living adjustment. New Hampshire tied its grant to 60 percent of the poverty line each year, so that benefits will remain above the deep poverty level.
|A Third of States Have Increased TANF Benefits in the Past Two Years Benefit levels for a family of three, 2017 & 2019|
|2017 Benefit Levels||2019 Benefit Levels||Increase in nominal dollars||Percent change in nominal dollars|
|District of Columbia||$508||$642||$134||26%|
Despite these changes, however, benefit levels in almost every state remain quite low. Most states’ monthly benefits are below $533, or 30 percent of the poverty federal line. Benefits have also lost considerable value in the vast majority of states, declining by 20 percent or more since 1996 in 33 states, after adjusting for inflation.
One basic need that many TANF families struggle to secure is decent housing. Only about 20 percent of TANF families receive housing assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And TANF benefits alone never cover average housing costs for a modest apartment. TANF families without housing assistance likely have high rates of housing instability — often resulting in doubling up with friends or relatives, living in substandard conditions, frequent moves, eviction, or homelessness.
TANF can and should do more to support families experiencing poverty because the evidence shows that additional income from economic security programs can improve children’s long-term outcomes. States have already taken some steps but many can go further, for instance by following California’s and New Hampshire’s lead in ensuring that TANF families don’t live in deep poverty, now and in the future.