Vice President for Family Income Support Policy
The number of people in need who are applying for help under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is on track to grow quickly and dramatically during the economic downturn, early data suggest, and federal policymakers should take steps to ensure that TANF continues providing a lifeline to families during what will likely be a long economic recovery.
The cash income that TANF provides to help families meet their basic needs matters to children’s long-term success — and it’s especially important at times of crisis and high stress.
In California, Vermont, and Washington, applications have more than doubled since the beginning of March; in Minnesota, applications in the last week of March were about 75 percent above last year’s level. With applications rising so quickly, federal policymakers should take the following steps:
Suspend work requirements, sanctions, and time limits. Although states have great flexibility in how they spend their TANF funds and operate their TANF programs, federal law imposes penalties if a state doesn’t meet a work participation rate, cut benefits for parents who don’t meet a work requirement, or follow federal time limits on benefits. States can suspend these requirements to meet social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, and some have. But others have been reluctant to do so while the federal requirements remain in place.
Policymakers should suspend the work-related requirements at least through the end of the year. They also should suspend time limits on benefits until the labor market substantially recovers. And they should empower the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to enforce the suspensions by imposing financial penalties on states that don’t comply.