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Cash Assistance Should Reach Millions More Families to Lessen Hardship

Families’ Access Limited by Policies Rooted in Racism

November 30, 2020

"TANF’s history of racism means that it disproportionately fails to reach families in states where Black children are likelier to live."

Families experiencing poverty should have access to cash assistance to help them afford their basic needs and maintain stability, an especially urgent need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program more than two decades ago, families have used it to pay for rent, utilities, diapers, food, transportation, and other necessities. Yet, too few families struggling to make ends meet have access to the program, and TANF’s history of racism means that it disproportionately fails to reach families in states where Black children are likelier to live. If TANF had the same reach as its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Child (AFDC), did in 1996, 2 million more families nationwide would have received cash assistance in 2019. Instead its reach has declined dramatically. In 2019, for every 100 families in poverty, only 23 received cash assistance from TANF — down from 68 families in 1996. (See Figure 1.) This “TANF-to-poverty ratio” (TPR) is nearly the lowest in the program’s history.

This paper analyzes TANF caseload and poverty data from 2019, the most recent year available. In 2019, the country’s poverty rate fell to its lowest point since the Great Recession. The situation has changed significantly since. Families with children are among those who have been hard hit by COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis. Widespread hardship has created instability for millions of families, some of whom have turned to TANF, among other public programs, for relief.[2] But as this paper illustrates, TANF does not reach many families in need. Access is worst for Black families, which have been especially hard hit by the pandemic’s health impacts and its resulting economic crisis.[3] Further, though TANF caseloads have grown in many states in 2020 (see box on COVID-19’s impact), the program’s benefit levels are extremely low in many states, falling far short of what families need to meet their basic needs.[4]

Figure 1
TANF's Reach Declined Significantly Over Time

Access to TANF largely depends on where a family lives. There are no federal minimum eligibility standards and states have the power to erect barriers or create pathways to TANF cash assistance. This has led to wide variation among state TPRs, which range from 70 in California to just 4 in Louisiana (see Appendix Figure 1). In 14 states, the ratio is 10 or less, meaning that for every 100 families living in poverty, 10 or fewer receive TANF cash assistance.

These geographic disparities reflect — and can widen — racial inequities in the TANF program: Black children are likelier and Latino children are somewhat more likely than white children to live in states with the lowest TPRs. The history of racism in cash assistance programs in the United States lives on in policies that impact access to TANF today, from strict work requirements and time limits to invasive behavioral requirements, exacerbating the barriers Black families still face to economic stability.

More income during early childhood can improve children’s futures, research finds.[5] But TANF’s limited reach means that when families hit upon hard times because they have lost a job, are fleeing domestic violence, or facing a health or mental health crisis, they may have no access to cash assistance. Blocking families from assistance to address these basic needs often puts them on a downward spiral, making it even harder to get back on their feet, and may have long-term negative consequences for children.

COVID-19 Crisis Led to TANF Caseload Increases

In response to growing hardship that resulted from the pandemic’s impact on the economy in 2020, the number of families receiving TANF benefits has risen in most states — and sharply in several. As unemployment skyrocketed and hardship grew for millions of families this spring, families in need turned to TANF for cash assistance, resulting in soaring applications for benefits.a These increases in applications preceded rising caseloads: in two-thirds of the states for which we have data for spring 2020, caseloads rose, reversing a trend of shrinking caseloads described in this paper.b

Most states made temporary TANF policy changes due to public health precautions, limited opportunities for residents to find work, and the safety of their staff. These policy changes range from extending eligibility recertifications and halting in-person interview requirements to suspending work requirements and providing expanded time limit exemptions. These changes reduce the burden of applying for or maintaining benefits and likely have contributed to caseload growth in some states.

For example, Michigan took administrative action to waive the requirement that families attend in-person orientations and to suspend job search and readiness requirements that require leaving the house.c Michigan’s caseload increased 82 percent between February and May, more than any other state for which we have caseload data for 2020.

Arizona, which imposes the shortest time limit on benefit receipt in the country, has exempted families from the time limit for as long as the state public health emergency due to COVID-19 is in effect, among other policy changes; between February and July, the state’s TANF caseload rose by 35 percent. Indiana suspended requirements that applicants complete job search activities before receiving benefits and redeterminations and Maryland suspended work requirements and extended eligibility recertifications and verifications.d Caseloads rose substantially in each of these states during the spring.

Most states made some policy changes in response to the public health and economic crisis, our analysis shows. A few states, such as Florida and Missouri, have started rolling back their amended policies; it is unclear how long these changes will last in other states.

a LaDonna Pavetti, “With Applications Soaring, TANF Needs More Funds, New Rules,” CBPP, April 14, 2020,

b Laura Meyer, “Senate Republican Plan’s Emergency Fund a Good Step, But Inadequate,” CBPP, July 30, 2020,

c Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, “Due to COVID-19, MDHHS closes lobbies except for appointments; suspends rules requiring office visits,” March 17, 2020,,5885,7-339--522020--,00.html

d Arizona House Bill 2904,; State of Indiana, Executive Order 20-05, “Helping Hoosiers During the Public Health Emergency Declared for the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak,” March 19, 2020,; Maryland Department of Human Services, “Department of Human Services Ensures Access to Food and Cash Benefits Does Not Stop for Vulnerable Marylanders During COVID-19 Pandemic,” March 27, 2020,

State and federal policymakers can change these trends. States should remove barriers to assistance and ease policies that cut off families who are still struggling. At the federal level, policymakers should hold states accountable for serving families experiencing poverty and provide the resources to help them do so.

Cash Assistance for Poor Families Has Plummeted

If TANF had maintained the same reach to families in poverty as its predecessor, AFDC, had in 1996, 3.1 million families would have received TANF in 2019, about 2 million more than reported for that year. (See Figure 2.) Instead its reach has declined dramatically. In 2019, for every 100 families in poverty, just 23 families received TANF cash assistance — a roughly two-thirds drop from TANF’s creation in 1996, when 68 families received cash assistance for every 100 in poverty. Between 2018 and 2019, both poverty and caseloads declined. As a result, TANF reached slightly more families in poverty, and the TPR increased slightly after falling to its lowest-ever level in 2018.

Figure 2
TANF Could Be Serving 2 Million More Families

Generally, the TPR has declined over time because TANF caseloads have fallen much more than the number of families experiencing poverty. That’s been the case over the last 13 years, for example: between 2006 and 2019, the number of families in poverty fell by 24 percent (from about 6 million to about 4.6 million) while the number of families receiving TANF fell by 44 percent (from 1.9 million to about 1 million). Between its post-recession peak in 2010, when close to 2 million families received TANF (see Appendix B, Table 2) and 2019, the TANF caseload fell by 46 percent.

What Is the TANF-to-Poverty Ratio?

We use the TANF-to-poverty ratio to examine changes over time in access to TANF by families experiencing poverty to help meet their basic needs. We calculate the ratio by dividing the number of TANF cash assistance cases by the number of families with children in poverty from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS). We use two-year averages for our state-level calculations to improve the reliability of the data. (See Appendix A for further details about our methodology.)

When this ratio falls, it means TANF is less responsive to need than in previous years. The TPR can fall because: (1) the number of families receiving cash assistance from TANF falls, without a corresponding drop in the number of families living in poverty; or (2) the number of families living in poverty rises, without a corresponding increase in the number of families receiving TANF benefits. The TPR rose slightly between 2018 and 2019 because the number of families in poverty fell more than the TANF caseload did.

The TPR has both strengths and limitations. Its strengths include: (1) it provides a measure of access to TANF benefits that is consistent over time and across states; and (2) it uses readily available data, making it transparent and relatively current. Two key limitations are: (1) it is less reliable in small states because of sample size limitations in the CPS; and (2) the underreporting of income from public benefit programs in the CPS has worsened over time, making the official poverty estimates less accurate than they once were.

TANF-to-Poverty Ratio Falling in Most States, Often Sharply

The national TANF-to-poverty ratio misses the extreme — and growing — variation among states. In 2019 the TPR ranged from 70 in California to 4 in Louisiana. (See Figure 3.) (To improve the reliability of the state-level poverty data, we created two-year averages of the poverty numbers; we also converted the caseload data into two-year averages to calculate the TPRs. The years cited here are for the latter of the two years.)[6]

The TPR fell in a majority of states between 2006 (the last time TANF was reauthorized) and 2019 for several reasons: policy changes to restrict access and reduce costs during the Great Recession, adoption of more restrictive policies as part of a broader attack on economic security programs, and state responses to federal policy changes when TANF was reauthorized, among other factors.[7] (See Appendix B, Table 1.) The TPR dropped by 10 or more points in 23 states over this period; in 15 of those states, it dropped by 20 points or more. In states with TPR declines, TANF caseloads fell while poverty rose or remained high, or caseloads rose by a relatively small amount while the number of families in poverty rose substantially.

Figure 3
States' TANF Cash Assistance Programs Reach Few Poor Families

An especially troubling trend is the number of states with TPRs of 10 or less. In 2006, only three states (Idaho, Louisiana, and Wyoming) had such low ratios, and in 1996, none did. The list grew during the Great Recession and has grown since then. In 2019, 14 states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming — had TPRs of 10 or less. Three of these states have had especially large drops in their TPRs since 2006: Indiana (30 points), Kansas (22 points), and Arizona (21 points). All have made significant policy or administrative changes that have made it harder for families to receive benefits. (See Figure 4.) In 2019, more than one-third (35 percent) of families with children in poverty lived in states with TPRs of 10 or less.

Figure 4
TANF Serves Hardly Any Families Living in Poverty in Some States

Historical Racism Restricted Access to AFDC and TANF, Harming Black Families and Children; Unequal Access Persists Today

A history of racist policies that aimed to limit Black mothers’ access to family cash assistance programs continues to contribute to racial disparities in access to TANF today. Forty-one percent of the nation’s Black children live in states with TPRs of 10 or less, compared to 33 percent of Latino children and only 28 percent of white children.[8] Nationally, therefore, Black children are less likely than white children and somewhat less likely than Latino children to have access to TANF assistance when their families fall into crisis. Moreover, if Black families do manage to receive TANF cash benefits, they are likelier to live in states with the lowest benefit levels, which do little to help families meet their basic needs.[9] Disparate access has persisted over decades: averaged together, the 14 states with the lowest TPRs today consistently had ratios lower than the national average every year between 1979, the earliest year of our state analysis, and 2019. Individually, a few of these states had ratios above the national average for some years, but generally, they had lower ratios than the national average even before TANF was implemented (see Appendix B, Table 4).

From its roots, the public cash assistance system has excluded Black families in need. In the early 20th century, supporting people in need was typically the responsibility of private organizations, which had full discretion to exclude individuals based on race, nationality, or religion. Some of the earliest public cash assistance programs, Mothers’ Pension programs, provided small benefits to widows and their children. Yet many Mothers’ Pension programs refused to serve Black women or other women of color. In fact, the only systematic review of Mothers’ Pension programs in 1931 found that only 4 percent of recipients were Black or “non-white.”[10]

In 1935, the United States established the first federal cash aid program for children, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which provided federal support to states for family cash assistance programs. As Congress debated the Social Security Act of 1935, the Southern congressional delegation (a crucial bloc in both chambers) successfully insisted on provisions that gave control of the program to state and local officials, thus protecting the white supremacist socioeconomic order of the Jim Crow South from the perceived threat of an expanded federal government.[11]

One way Southern officials tried to keep Black mothers available for work was to simply reject or ignore their applications for aid.[12] Even if a Black family’s application was accepted, officials could coerce them to work by deliberately paying out lower benefits or with so-called “farm policies” where benefits were lowered or cut off during the planting or harvesting seasons to force parents and children as young as 7 into the fields for extremely low wages. In Louisiana and Arkansas, for example, benefits would be lowered or halted completely regardless of whether the family had secured such employment during planting or harvesting seasons.[13]

States also restricted access to benefits for Black families through “suitable home” policies. Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, 23 states passed “suitable home” laws.[14] Though they appeared throughout the country, the most punitive of these policies were in the South, where most Black people lived, and they often targeted Black families. The head of Georgia’s Department of Public Welfare, for example, said in 1951 that the state’s proposal to limit cash aid to unmarried mothers who had a child while on the program would save money “mainly by limiting aid to children of unwed Negro mothers.”[15] (Georgia backed off this proposal due to federal opposition but enacted another law in 1952 that denied aid to children of unwed mothers while getting around federal rules.) In 1960, Louisiana legislators passed two laws with a very broad “suitable home” definition that cut off more than 6,000 families in the span of three months; 95 percent of the children in those families were Black. Later that year about half of the families that were cut off had their reapplications rejected or did not reapply. Some of the families that did not reapply did not know they could.[16]

“Man-in-the-house”[17] rules also disproportionally affected Black women.[18] Between 1964 and 1967, in Dallas County, Alabama, 182 of the 186 families cut off due to this policy were Black.[19] After the enactment of Georgia’s 1952 policy package, which included a similar man-in-the-house provision, the growth of Black families on the state’s ADC rolls slowed for several years.[20] Caseworkers often cut off families with little evidence of a romantic relationship or whether the partner was providing support to the family.

The ADC (renamed AFDC in 1962) caseload grew through the 1960s and 1970s and, despite states’ efforts to limit Black families’ participation in the program, their numbers grew as well.[21] To ensure that Black families could access assistance, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), led by Black mothers and their allies, sought to end discriminatory practices. They educated parents about AFDC policy and advocated for more benefits to families.[22] NWRO also partnered with legal aid lawyers to push for greater enforcement of federal eligibility standards.[23] Their efforts led to several Supreme Court decisions that contributed to ending some of the most harmful state eligibility rules. In particular, the ruling in King v. Smith invalidated man-in-the-house policies and precluded states from adding eligibility restrictions on participants.[24]

During that period, an increased federal role in AFDC helped the program reach more families in poverty. The program boosted the federal contribution to state programs and expanded eligibility in other ways, such as extending the child age of eligibility to 18 and allowing children with two parents in the home, one of whom was unemployed, to participate in the program. Between 1961 and 1979, the number of families on AFDC nearly tripled and the number of Black families on the program more than tripled.[25] The AFDC-to-poverty ratio grew in the 1970s and remained around or above 60 between 1979 until AFDC ended in 1996. (See Appendix B, Table 2.) Despite gains made in the 1960s and 1970s, the access and adequacy of benefits under AFDC remained limited.

During this time, policymakers increased their attention on AFDC mothers’ work effort while participating in the program. In 1967, Congress passed the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which required states to establish work and training programs, and later required participants to register for a work program. In 1988, the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program replaced WIN and required states to engage mothers with children over the age of 3 in work and work-preparation activities.[26] Still, under the AFDC law, states could only reduce benefits by removing the needs of a parent and could not terminate or deny benefits to the entire family. Then, under a proliferation of waivers in the 1990s, states were allowed to bypass federal eligibility restrictions and began implementing policies to cut the whole family off if a parent failed to meet work requirements.[27]

Further ground has been lost under TANF. With its creation in 1996, the federal government eliminated federal minimum eligibility standards, granting states broad flexibility with respect to eligibility requirements and sanctions. States have taken advantage of this considerable freedom to implement policies that restrict access to the program, including upfront work requirements, full-family sanctions, time limits, family caps, drug testing requirements, and felony drug bans, among others. The new law set a lifetime limit of 60 months on receipt of federally funded benefits, and many states have opted for even shorter time limits, cutting thousands of families off from benefits.[28] And further, TANF created financial incentives for states to reduce caseloads.[29] These changes have led to a decline in the TPR nearly every year since TANF’s start.

And leading policymakers have continued to advance proposals to restrict access to benefits based on racist stereotypes: in 2014, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan argued that work requirements were needed in TANF because people in “inner cities” do not value work, referring through coded language to Black people.[30]

These changes disproportionately impact Black families. For example, research consistently finds that African American recipients are significantly more likely to be sanctioned than white recipients.[31] Black and Indigenous families were likelier than other families to be cut off due to time limit changes, research in Washington State found.[32] And research finds that all else equal, states with larger African American populations have less generous and more restrictive TANF policies.[33] These policies impact everyone, regardless of race: today, states that historically denied Black families have simply opted to help few families at all.

Stronger Cash Assistance Would Improve Children’s Prospects

The decline in access to TANF benefits has left many of the families experiencing the deepest poverty without resources to meet their basic needs. TANF does far worse than AFDC did in lifting families out of deep poverty (incomes below half of the poverty line). In the decade following the creation of TANF, deep poverty actually rose, largely among the families impacted by the law, with the greatest impact on Black and Latino children, when using an assessment of poverty that includes more forms of income from public benefits than the “official” poverty measure.[34] Today, TANF benefits alone are insufficient to help families move out of poverty in any state, and are only sufficient to keep families out of deep poverty in one state.[35] While AFDC helped more than 2.9 million children out of deep poverty in 1995, TANF helped only 260,000 children out of deep poverty in 2017.[36] (See Figure 5.) In 1995, only three states had more families living in deep poverty than receiving AFDC. By 2019, the vast majority of states had more families living in deep poverty than receiving TANF.

Figure 5
TANF Lifts Many Fewer Children Out of Deep Poverty Than AFDC Did

The evidence is clear that when families have more income, children do better in the future. Income support programs can improve children’s academic, health, and economic outcomes, the National Academies of Sciences’ report on reducing childhood poverty finds.[37] Even relatively small amounts of income make a difference. Among families with incomes below $25,000, children whose families received a $3,000 annual income boost when the children were under age 6 earned 17 percent more as adults and worked 135 more hours per year after age 25 than otherwise-similar children whose families didn’t receive the income boost, research finds.[38] That research suggests that TANF policy changes that cut families’ income, such as establishing harsher sanctions or shorter time limits or significantly reducing benefits, could harm young children now and in the future.

TANF Should Do More to Help Families Meet Basic Needs

Federal policymakers have not increased the TANF block grant since its inception; as a result, it has lost nearly 40 percent of its value due to inflation. That fixed block grant funding and erosion, combined with TANF’s nearly unfettered state flexibility, narrowly defined work requirements, and time limits, have created a system in which very few families in need receive cash assistance or help preparing for success in today’s labor market. The lack of minimum federal standards has allowed states to enact extremely restrictive eligibility policies, leaving the families with the greatest needs — including, disproportionately, Black families — unable to cover the basic essentials through either employment or cash assistance.

Other anti-poverty programs cannot fill the role that TANF is supposed to play. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are very effective at boosting families’ overall income, but because they are paid as annual lump sums when a family files income taxes, families cannot access the credits throughout the year if a crisis occurs, and not all families can work or find work that would qualify them for the tax credits. Other cash assistance programs, such as Unemployment Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, have eligibility standards that make them unavailable to the wider share of poor families who fall on hard times and need cash to meet their basic needs. Many families not receiving TANF benefits may receive food assistance from SNAP (formerly food stamps), but SNAP benefits cannot help families pay rent or buy diapers or clothes for their children.

TANF is overdue for significant improvements.[39] State and federal policy changes should focus on serving more families who need assistance and alleviating the program’s deep racial disparities, and on ensuring that adequate resources are available to achieve these goals.

For example, states should:

  • Lift income thresholds and asset tests for applicants. In many states, eligible TANF applicants must be so destitute that few families in poverty even qualify. States should lift income thresholds and eliminate asset tests to broaden eligibility to more families.
  • Remove barriers to access for those seeking cash assistance. States have too many requirements that create challenges for people applying to TANF while in crisis. States should remove requirements like applicant job search and other hurdles that make it harder to get assistance and should take steps to make applying for benefits more accessible. States should also eliminate burdensome requirements on families such as school attendance and immunization requirements.
  • Stop cutting off families that are struggling to meet their basic needs. Two of the main causes of TANF’s dramatic caseload decline are full family sanctions that end benefits to the entire family and arbitrary time limits. As noted above, families cut off by sanctions and time limits are more likely to have greater barriers to employment and to be families of color. States should ensure that their programs have adequate protections for families with significant barriers to work before imposing sanctions and time limits. Children should continue to receive benefits if the state imposes any sanction or a family reaches a time limit.

Additionally, federal policymakers should:

  • Hold states accountable for serving families in need. States focus on what they are incentivized to do. To expand TANF’s reach, Congress should remove incentives that encourage states not to assist families and should create a state accountability measure that focuses on serving families in need (such as the TPR). States that fail to meet a specified standard could be required to spend additional resources on cash assistance or work activities.
  • Require states to direct a specified share of federal and state resources to families receiving cash assistance. TANF’s purposes are broad, which has given states the flexibility to spread program funds throughout their budgets and allowed them to shift resources away from assistance to families. To better target resources, Congress should require states to spend a specific share of their state and federal TANF funds on basic assistance.
  • Provide more resources for states to provide cash assistance. The TANF block grant is worth 40 percent less than when it was created in 1996. Without additional funds, states are unlikely to adopt policies that would reach more families as this would increase the costs of providing cash assistance to families. With a fixed block grant, providing cash to more families means taking money away from other activities that use TANF funds. Any additional funds should be restricted to TANF’s core purposes: cash assistance, employment assistance, and work supports.

Appendix A: Methodology and Source Notes

TANF Caseload Data

In this analysis, AFDC/TANF caseload data from January 1979 through August 2006 were collected from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Beginning in September 2006, this analysis uses caseload data collected directly from the states rather than the official data reported by HHS, as the state data more consistently reflect the number of families with children receiving cash assistance in each state over time.

These state data differ from the official HHS TANF data in two important ways. First, they include cases from solely state-funded programs. In most instances, these families had been in state TANF programs but were shifted to a solely state-funded program on or after October 2006, when the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (DRA) took effect, because states anticipated these families would not be able to meet TANF work participation requirements and thus would lower the state’s work participation rate. These cases are not included in the data reported to HHS as no TANF or state maintenance-of-effort (MOE) funds are used. While these families are not counted in the HHS TANF caseload numbers, they generally are seen as part of the state’s cash assistance program and continue to receive the same or comparable benefits as when they were on TANF.

Second, unlike the HHS data, the state data exclude cases in worker supplement programs, through which states provide modest TANF- or MOE-funded cash payments to working families. States generally created these programs after the passage of the DRA. Because these supplements make additional families eligible (or make current recipients eligible for a longer period of time), they increase the TANF or MOE caseloads that states report to HHS. Often, states provide a very small cash grant to these families — as little as $8 to $10 per month. The main purpose of these small grants is to raise the percentage of TANF families who are meeting their work participation requirement, thereby helping states meet their work participation requirement.

Including solely state-funded programs and excluding worker supplement programs in the caseload data used for our analysis provides us with a more consistent trend of the number of families receiving cash assistance in each state over time.

Data on the Number of Families With Children in Poverty

The number of families with children in poverty was calculated using Current Population Survey (CPS) data and the official Census poverty thresholds. We counted related subfamilies and primary families in a single household as one family but counted and determined the poverty status of unrelated subfamilies separately. “Deep poverty” refers to families with incomes below half the poverty line, which in 2019 was about $11,000 for a family of three. Two years of CPS data were merged to improve reliability for state estimates.

Ratio of Families Receiving TANF to Families in Poverty

Ratios are calculated by dividing the number of TANF cases (based on administrative data from HHS or, since late 2006, data collected from states by CBPP) by the number of families with children in poverty (CPS data). We use two-year averages for these calculations to improve reliability.

These ratios should not be interpreted as the percentage of families with children in poverty served by TANF because the number of families on TANF is not a perfect subset of the number of families in poverty. A family above poverty could receive TANF benefits, for example: some families may be poor in the months they receive TANF but have higher incomes for the rest of the year; states may encourage work by continuing partial TANF benefits for certain families with earnings slightly above the poverty line; and in some households, large extended families may contain more than one eligible TANF case unit. For these reasons, it’s possible for a state to have more than 100 TANF families for every 100 families with children in poverty.

Using the Alabama ratio as an example, the data should be described as follows: In 1995, for every 100 Alabama families with children in poverty, AFDC served 34 families. In 2019, 8 families participated in TANF for every 100 families with children in poverty.

In Alaska and Hawai’i, the TANF-to-poverty ratio is above 100 in 1994-95 because the HHS poverty guidelines used in determining program eligibility in these two states are significantly higher than the Census poverty thresholds used in determining the number of poor families. (This is not true for any of the other 48 states. HHS poverty thresholds are set higher in Alaska and Hawai’i to allow for higher costs of living in these two states but do not vary elsewhere. The Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds do not vary for any state.)

Appendix B

State TANF-to-Poverty Ratios Over Time
  1995-96 2005- 06 2013- 14 2014- 15 2015- 16 2016- 17 2017- 18 2018- 19 Ratio Change '05-06 to '18-19
Alabama 32 17 12 11 10 9 8 8 -9
Alaska 132 32 29 30 27 20 20 22 -11
Arizona 42 27 8 7 6 6 6 6 -21
Arkansas 33 11 6 5 5 5 5 4 -7
California 101 66 65 65 66 65 68 70 4
Colorado 66 18 20 20 26 34 34 23 6
Connecticut 82 48 31 30 23 21 22 27 -21
Delaware 99 45 33 39 38 36 39 44 -1
Florida 55 20 12 11 12 13 12 13 -7
Georgia 82 16 6 5 5 6 5 5 -11
Hawai’i 108 71 50 40 38 38 34 35 -36
Idaho 32 8 7 7 7 8 8 9 1
Illinois 87 17 17 18 17 14 15 14 -3
Indiana 61 35 8 7 7 7 6 5 -30
Iowa 64 40 27 27 22 21 21 19 -21
Kansas 52 32 13 10 10 8 8 10 -22
Kentucky 55 29 19 19 20 24 21 21 -8
Louisiana 48 10 4 4 4 4 4 4 -6
Maine 91 52 30 24 22 19 18 19 -32
Maryland 97 32 29 27 30 39 33 25 -7
Massachusetts 81 46 38 34 38 38 34 40 -6
Michigan 88 40 18 16 14 12 11 11 -29
Minnesota 93 51 40 49 57 47 41 47 -4
Mississippi 39 14 10 8 7 6 6 4 -10
Missouri 118 38 28 29 19 14 13 11 -27
Montana 41 21 17 16 17 26 33 25 4
Nebraska 54 52 19 17 20 21 18 17 -35
Nevada 71 20 16 18 22 22 19 20 0
New Hampshire 100 62 24 25 25 28 30 46 -16
New Jersey 108 42 23 20 20 19 15 16 -26
New Mexico 44 32 22 22 22 21 21 24 -8
New York 79 41 39 40 43 42 42 42 1
North Carolina 74 14 7 7 7 7 6 7 -8
North Dakota 48 23 13 10 8 9 10 13 -10
Ohio 89 33 26 22 22 24 25 25 -8
Oklahoma 41 12 7 7 8 9 9 10 -2
Oregon 50 26 47 43 37 35 40 48 22
Pennsylvania 87 45 31 29 30 28 25 26 -19
Rhode Island 113 64 30 34 35 29 35 35 -29
South Carolina 40 21 12 11 11 10 10 10 -11
South Dakota 42 22 19 17 17 20 23 20 -2
Tennessee 67 51 25 25 23 23 22 18 -33
Texas 47 12 5 4 4 4 4 4 -8
Utah 59 21 9 9 9 9 10 11 -9
Vermont 80 79 78 54 47 55 50 49 -30
Virginia 56 31 25 23 19 18 16 15 -16
Washington 76 63 33 27 25 26 29 34 -29
West Virginia 68 27 18 17 16 17 16 18 -9
Wisconsin 81 23 26 24 20 20 23 23 0
Wyoming 45 3 5 5 5 6 6 7 4

Source: CBPP analysis of poverty data from the Current Population Survey and AFDC/TANF caseload data from Department of Health and Human Services and (since September 2006) caseload data collected by CBPP from state agencies

Appendix Figure 1

Few Poor Families with Children Received TANF, 2019

National Single-Year TANF-to-Poverty Ratios
Selected years
  Number of families with children in poverty Yearly average of number of families on AFDC/TANF Ratio
1979 4,222,769 3,465,254 82
1983 6,115,748 3,628,418 59
1987 5,720,798 3,718,937 65
1991 6,479,558 4,433,843 68
1996 6,400,950 4,380,430 68
2001 5,310,009 2,162,291 41
2006 6,042,035 1,902,442 31
2010 7,263,610 1,979,893 27
2011 7,373,607 1,963,324 27
2012 7,334,765 1,847,761 25
2013 6,940,399 1,747,820 25
2014 7,068,069 1,643,205 23
2015 6,477,753 1,502,236 23
2016 5,874,839 1,372,302 23
2017 5,568,320 1,263,805 23
2018 5,231,333 1,157,087 22
2019 4,568,131 1,064,133 23

Source: CBPP analysis of poverty data from the Current Population Survey and AFDC/TANF caseload data from Department of Health and Human Services and (since September 2006) caseload data collected by CBPP from state agencies

TANF Caseloads Over Time
  2006 2010 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 Percent Change ‘06-‘19
Alabama 19,358 22,363 16,388 13,083 10,849 9,487 8,296 7,467 -61%
Alaska 3,538 3,478 3,495 3,141 3,093 3,163 2,877 2,401 -32%
Arizona 38,634 28,492 13,322 11,087 9,160 8,088 6,980 6,467 -83%
Arkansas 8,161 7,462 4,946 3,895 3,127 2,763 2,443 2,150 -74%
California 480,132 575,090 555,561 520,787 478,637 442,991 406,398 371,095 -23%
Colorado 13,862 14,065 18,018 17,843 17,505 17,078 16,722 15,860 14%
Connecticut 21,365 19,181 16,612 14,951 13,306 12,988 12,015 10,346 -52%
Delaware 5,576 6,306 5,665 5,355 5,055 4,700 4,411 3,955 -29%
Florida 51,428 57,614 49,556 48,535 47,196 45,544 42,882 39,821 -23%
Georgia 29,338 20,387 14,588 13,095 12,552 11,309 10,863 9,214 -69%
Hawai’i 9,310 9,628 8,818 7,531 6,322 5,275 4,599 4,200 -55%
Idaho 1,789 1,789 1,895 1,889 1,983 1,980 2,152 2,081 16%
Illinois 35,906 32,210 48,896 43,543 33,055 26,512 21,967 21,051 -41%
Indiana 43,668 34,984 10,140 8,885 7,997 7,146 6,277 5,460 -87%
Iowa 19,720 17,365 12,339 10,985 9,902 9,241 8,136 7,161 -64%
Kansas 16,639 13,914 6,319 5,482 4,777 4,183 3,912 3,557 -79%
Kentucky 32,470 30,483 27,813 24,490 22,621 21,225 19,181 16,911 -48%
Louisiana 11,266 11,013 5,767 5,491 5,781 5,557 5,510 4,671 -59%
Maine 11,979 14,716 7,082 5,968 5,037 4,466 4,077 3,895 -67%
Maryland 22,986 27,802 24,735 23,097 21,101 19,269 17,776 16,615 -28%
Massachusetts 46,686 50,673 43,554 37,119 32,483 30,120 29,224 29,792 -36%
Michigan 84,387 80,340 33,880 26,947 22,462 19,786 17,420 15,360 -82%
Minnesota 30,224 33,626 29,256 28,557 29,806 29,424 27,199 24,932 -18%
Mississippi 12,797 11,985 8,268 6,628 5,736 5,092 4,232 3,215 -75%
Missouri 43,777 41,999 30,964 27,225 15,815 12,354 10,636 9,387 -79%
Montana 3,642 3,707 3,046 2,981 3,296 4,343 3,923 3,351 -8%
Nebraska 12,473 8,732 6,205 5,845 5,964 5,974 5,569 4,871 -61%
Nevada 7,030 11,897 12,994 11,041 9,976 9,820 9,580 8,359 19%
New Hampshire 6,096 6,520 3,454 3,066 2,653 2,847 3,601 3,829 -37%
New Jersey 41,879 39,560 33,680 28,238 21,484 16,464 13,312 10,918 -74%
New Mexico 15,785 20,633 14,129 13,176 12,511 11,844 11,184 10,468 -34%
New York 171,662 158,081 154,041 152,297 146,353 138,173 129,070 117,440 -32%
North Carolina 29,631 25,143 18,807 16,545 16,345 15,600 14,160 12,343 -58%
North Dakota 2,669 1,876 1,190 1,096 1,047 1,038 970 915 -66%
Ohio 79,285 100,655 62,024 58,918 56,820 54,360 49,822 50,321 -37%
Oklahoma 10,092 9,635 7,206 7,262 7,166 6,862 6,288 5,904 -41%
Oregon 18,281 28,314 33,122 27,249 24,161 22,427 21,192 20,737 13%
Pennsylvania 94,577 86,080 74,766 70,576 62,800 54,111 46,502 41,032 -57%
Rhode Island 12,153 7,175 5,426 4,669 4,118 4,558 4,195 3,936 -68%
South Carolina 17,637 20,513 12,729 11,875 10,988 10,170 9,395 9,128 -48%
South Dakota 2,852 3,212 3,054 2,994 3,030 3,010 2,963 2,895 2%
Tennessee 68,106 62,355 45,308 35,986 29,854 25,532 21,824 19,201 -72%
Texas 68,100 49,387 31,965 27,553 25,313 24,186 21,536 18,822 -72%
Utah 6,843 7,069 4,147 3,878 3,960 3,804 3,564 3,163 -54%
Vermont 4,757 5,751 5,468 4,701 4,274 3,991 3,743 3,558 -25%
Virginia 33,959 37,543 28,440 25,966 23,337 20,512 18,451 16,676 -51%
Washington 54,556 66,895 39,283 32,606 29,944 27,148 25,644 25,133 -54%
West Virginia 11,058 11,193 9,198 8,091 7,753 7,487 6,903 6,619 -40%
Wisconsin 18,149 23,710 25,947 21,502 17,954 16,255 15,162 14,182 -22%
Wyoming 304 353 386 384 486 535 534 503 65%
U.S. 1,902,442 1,979,893 1,643,205 1,502,236 1,372,302 1,263,805 1,157,087 1,064,133 -44%

Note: As noted, this paper’s analysis of state TPR’s uses two-year averages of TANF caseload data so that the data are comparable to the two-year averages we use for state-level poverty data. Additionally, poverty data are not available on a monthly basis. In this table, since we highlight only the monthly average caseload for each year, two-year averages are not needed.

Average AFDC-to-Poverty Ratios for States With the Smallest Ratios in 2019
Selected years
  1978-79 1982-83 1986-87 1990-91 1995-96 2018-19
Alabama 49 40 29 35 32 8
Arizona 51 37 37 64 42 6
Arkansas 39 32 26 38 33 4
Georgia 60 51 52 59 82 5
Idaho 48 25 23 26 32 9
Indiana 56 38 47 34 61 5
Kansas 78 53 68 52 52 10
Louisiana 58 41 44 57 48 4
Mississippi 71 49 53 48 39 4
North Carolina 55 40 47 65 74 7
Oklahoma 64 32 36 48 41 10
South Carolina 64 42 52 46 40 10
Texas 31 24 32 45 47 4
Wyoming 50 29 43 60 45 7
14-state average 55 38 42 48 48 7
National APR/TPR 82 59 65 68 68 22

Note: AFDC= Aid to Families with Dependent Children; APR = AFDC-to-Poverty Ratio; TPR = TANF-to-Poverty Ratio - Number of poor families with children receiving cash assistance for every 100 such families. State figures are two-year average to improve reliability of the data. Data for all years are available in the corresponding excel file found at

Source: The APR and TPR data come from CBPP analysis of poverty data from the Census' Current Population Survey and AFDC/TANF caseload data collected from the Department of Health and Human Services and (since 2006) data collected by CBPP from state agencies.

End Notes

[1] Evelyn Bellew contributed to proofing the data in this report.

[2] Laura Meyer, “Senate Republican Plan’s Emergency Fund a Good Step, But Inadequate,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), July 30, 2020,

[3] APM Research Lab, “The Color Of Coronavirus: Covid-19 Deaths By Race And Ethnicity In The U.S.,” October 15, 2020,; CBPP, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” updated November 18, 2020,

[4] Ali Safawi and Ife Floyd, “TANF Benefits Still Too Low to Help Families, Especially Black Families, Avoid Increased Hardship,” CBPP, updated October 8, 2020,

[5] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty,” 2019,

[6] Because our state-level TPRs are based on two-year averages, the latest figures — which average data for 2018 and 2019 — may not reflect the full effects of some state actions between 2018 and 2019. Those effects will likely become clear after another year of data is available.

[7] Though TPRs have fallen both nationally and in every state since 1996, some states’ TPRs have risen in recent years. In 2019, the TPR increased in 22 states. In just two of these states, TANF caseloads increased in 2019. In the other states, the TPR increased because the number of families in poverty has fallen faster than caseloads.

[8] CBPP analysis of the U.S. Census 2019 American Community Survey child poverty estimates by race and the TANF-to-poverty ratios.

[9] Safawi and Floyd.

[10] United States Children’s Bureau, “Mother’s Aid, 1931,” in Premilla Nadasen, Jennifer Mittelstadt, and Marisa Chappell, Welfare in the United States: A History With Documents, 1935-1996. 2009, New York: Routledge.

[11] Ira Katznelson, “Jim Crow Congress,” Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013, pp. 156-194; Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 21.

[12] Frances Fox Piven, “Why Welfare Is Racist,” Race and Politics of Welfare Reform, University of Michigan Press, 2003, p. 323-336; Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1994, Free Press, p. 276; Winifred Bell, Aid to Dependent Children, Columbia University Press, 1965, p. 43.

[13] Elisa Minoff, “The Racist Roots of Work Requirements,” Center for the Study of Social Policy, February 2020,; Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, Vintage Books, 1971, p. 143.

[14] “Suitable home” laws, a provision in ADC law, allowed caseworkers to deny aid based on moral determinations of a home’s fitness for child rearing. Many states defined and applied these standards in ways that mostly impacted Black families.

[15] Bell, op. cit. p. 67.

[16] Bell, op. cit. p. 138.

[17] States wrote “man in the house” policies sometimes as a part of or paired with a state’s “suitable home” laws and would cut aid to children if their mother cohabitated with any man who was not the father of the children. These rules assumed the man could be providing for the children or that he should if he was able-bodied. Case workers conducted “midnight raids” in search of any evidence that a man lived in the house.

[18] Piven and Cloward, op. cit.

[19] Martha Davis, Brutal Need: Lawyers and the Welfare Rights Movement, 1960 – 1973, 1993, Yale University Press, p. 64.

[20] Bell, op. cit. p. 83.

[21] Martin Gilens, “How the Poor Became Black: The Racialization of American Poverty in the Mass Media,” in Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform, University of Michigan Press, 2003, pp. 104,

[22] Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States, 2005, Routledge.

[23] Alan Houseman and Linda E. Perle, “Securing Equal Justice for All: A Brief History of Civil Legal Assistance in the United States,” CLASP, National Equal Justice Library, and National Legal Aid & Defender Association, May 2018,

[24] Davis, op. cit.

[25] CBPP analysis of AFDC administrative data.

[26] Minoff, op. cit.; Susan Blank and Barbara Blum, “A Brief History of Work Expectations for Welfare Mothers,” The Future of Children, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1997, pp. 28-38,; Congressional Research Service (CRS), “The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant: A Legislative History,” updated July 21, 2020,

[27] Dan Bloom and Don Winstead, “Sanctions and Welfare,” Brookings Institution, January 1, 2002,

[28] Urban Institute, Welfare Rules Database,

[29] TANF incentivized states to reduce their caseloads by creating caseload reduction credits, which reduce the share of participants who must participate in work requirements based on how much the caseload has shrunk over time. If states do not meet federal work participation rates, they face financial penalties. For a state to meet the federal work rates, 50 percent of the families receiving TANF cash assistance must be engaged in a work activity for at least 30 hours a week (20 hours a week for single parents with children under age 6). States also must have 90 percent of two-parent families engaged in work, generally for 35 hours per week. States can get credit toward meeting those 50 percent and 90 percent requirements if their assistance caseload has fallen since 2005; due in part to this “caseload reduction credit,” most states meet their work rates.

[30] Minoff, op. cit.

[31] LaDonna Pavetti, Michelle K. Derr, and Heather Hesketh, “Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies,” Mathematica Policy Research, March 10, 2003.

[32] Liz Olson, “Punitive WorkFirst policies disproportionately harm families of color: Program cuts have stark racist impacts,” Washington State Budget & Policy Center, February 21, 2019,

[33] Heather Hahn et al., “Why Does Cash Welfare Depend on Where You Live?” June 2017,; Joe Soss et al., “Setting the Terms of Relief: Explaining State Policy Choices in the Devolution Revolution,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 2001,; Joe Soss et al., “Welfare policy choices in the states: Does the hard line follow the color line?” 2003,

[34] Danilo Trisi and Matt Saenz, “Policy Brief: Deep Poverty Among Children Rose in TANF’s First Decade, Then Fell as Other Programs Strengthened,” CBPP, February 27, 2020,

[35] Safawi and Floyd.

[36] CBPP analysis of Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) data from Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy (1995) and IPUMS-CPS (2017). Data correct for underreporting of income from SNAP, Supplemental Security Income, and TANF/AFDC with Department of Health and Human Services/Urban Institute Transfer Income Model (TRIM). In earlier editions of this paper, CBPP used a different methodology to calculate these figures. These new estimates use the SPM and the latest available data from the Health and Human Services/Urban Institute TRIM.

[37] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

[38] Greg J. Duncan and Katherine Magnuson, “The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty,” Pathways, Winter 2011,

[39] For more details, see LaDonna Pavetti and Liz Schott, “TANF at 20: Time to Create a Program that Supports Work and Helps Families Meet Their Basic Needs,” CBPP, August 15, 2016,