States reach far fewer poor families under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — created 20 years ago today — than under its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). These two maps show how dramatically the cash assistance safety net has shrunk.
At the end of AFDC, in 1995-96, most states provided cash assistance to more than 50 families for every 100 poor families with children, and no state’s ratio was below 32 (see first map). In 2013-14, TANF programs in most states reached 30 or fewer families for every 100 poor families, and 12 states had ratios of 10 or less (see second map).
Nationwide, 23 families received TANF for every 100 poor families with children in 2014, compared to 68 families that received cash assistance under AFDC in 1996.
TANF isn’t about work. In 2015, states spent only about a quarter of their state and federal TANF funds on work activities and child care assistance combined. And parents who leave TANF generally don’t fare well in the labor market over the long term.
States have diverted TANF funds to many uses other than basic assistance and work. New data show that they spend 13 percent on child welfare, pre-K, and Head Start programs — worthwhile areas, but not what TANF was designed to support.
TANF is overdue for reform. Policymakers should focus on strengthening TANF as a safety net, making it a more effective work program, and ensuring that states direct the money to TANF’s core activities — work, work supports, and basic cash assistance.