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The Latest on State TANF Cuts

We’ve updated our analysis of the cuts that states made this year in their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.  Here’s a brief look at our findings:

States in 2011 implemented some of the harshest TANF cuts in recent history for many of the nation’s most vulnerable families with children.  The cuts affect 700,000 low-income families — over one-third of all low-income families receiving TANF nationwide.

A number of states have cut cash assistance deeply for families that already live far below the poverty line, ended it entirely for many other families with physical or mental health issues or other challenges, or cut child care or other work-related assistance that make it harder for many poor parents fortunate enough to have jobs to keep them.

Among the state TANF cuts to date:

  • At least five states — California, Washington, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and New Mexico — and the District of Columbia have reduced already-low cash assistance benefit levels for TANF families.  (The benefit cuts for Wisconsin and  California have gone into effect since our earlier analysis.)  In addition, New Hampshire eliminated TANF cash assistance entirely for two-parent families.  These cuts are pushing hundreds of thousands of families and children below — or further below — half of the poverty line.
  • States have shortened or otherwise tightened their lifetime time limits on receiving TANF benefits, cutting off aid entirely for thousands of very poor families and reducing benefits for thousands more.  California and Arizona shortened their time limits, and several other states tightened time limits.  Just this week, Michigan implemented time limit changes that caused about 12,000 families to lose TANF coverage.

Many of the cuts run counter to states’ longstanding approaches to welfare reform and are driven by state fiscal pressures.  For example, some states have abandoned their “make-work-pay” policies designed to help poor parents working in low-wage jobs.  Similarly, states have shortened their time limits and eliminated some bases for extensions or exemptions, and applied these changes retroactively.  As a result, states have terminated or reduced benefits for some of the most vulnerable families, most of whom have very poor labor market prospects.

These TANF cuts come at a time when

, the prospects of finding jobs (especially for people with low skills), are poor, and deep poverty — that is, the share of the population with incomes below half the poverty line ($11,157 for a family of four) — is worsening.

And, a new round of TANF cuts is starting.  Kansas just announced a series of measures slated to take effect over the next three months, including shorter time limits.  Washington, which imposed severe cuts this year, is considering more, including further cuts in benefit levels — which are already lower than when Congress created TANF 15 years ago.