You are here

Chart Book: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

UPDATED
August 16, 2017

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant was created 21 years ago as a part of the 1996 welfare reform law to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.  Welfare reform provided states with a fixed block grant in exchange for greater flexibility in how they could use the funds.  In addition, for the first time, cash benefits were time limited and states were held accountable for engaging most cash assistance recipients in work or work-related activities. 

We have seen over the last 21 years the shortcomings of the TANF block grant and how the program has performed in both good and bad times.  The labor market was extraordinarily strong in TANF’s early years, while during and for several years after the Great Recession it was one of the worst on record.  When assessing TANF’s accomplishments, it is important to consider how it has performed over the full period.  Proponents use data from TANF’s early years (through 2000) to tout TANF as a resounding success, but that view ignores what has happened during the last 17 years. 

TANF’s funding structure was and is a bad deal for states. The block grant has eroded for all states over time.  Allocations per poor child were inequitable at the outset and the inequity increased over time as the block grant failed to account for disproportionate population growth and demographic changes, particularly in poor states. When considered on a per-poor-child basis, the block grants in half of the states have eroded more than the national average.

TANF provides basic assistance to few families in need.TANF’s early years were marked by unprecedented drops in the number of families receiving cash assistance — and unprecedented increases in the share of single mothers working, especially those with a high school education or less.  But since then, TANF’s record has been dismal.  TANF provides basic assistance to few families in need and responded only modestly to the significant increase in unemployment nationally during and after the Great Recession — and not at all in a number of states, including some that were hard hit.  Even in the current rebounding economy, individuals with a high school degree or less continue to fare poorly; without higher levels of education and better skills, they are likely to continue to do so.  And, because TANF provides such a weak safety net, an unacceptable number of families are living in very deep poverty.             

Taking into account the full 21 years of TANF’s history, this chart book illustrates the following facts:

  • Over time, TANF has provided basic cash assistance to fewer and fewer needy families, even when need has increased.
  • The amount of cash assistance provided to families has eroded in almost every state, leaving families without sufficient funds to meet their most basic needs.
  • Although a key focus of welfare reform was on increasing employment among cash assistance recipients, states spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.   
  • Employment among single mothers increased in the 1990s, but welfare reform was only one of several contributing factors — and most of the early gains have been lost. 
  • The TANF block grant was inequitable at the outset and only grew more inequitable over the next two decades.
  • TANF plays much less of a role in reducing poverty than AFDC did — and the provision of less cash assistance has contributed to an increase in deep or extreme poverty.

Over time, TANF has provided basic cash assistance to fewer and fewer needy families, even when need has increased.

Over the last 20 years, the national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 1.5 million families in 2015 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened.  The number of families with children in poverty hit a low of 5.1 million in 2000, but has since risen to 6.5 million.  Similarly, the number of families with children in deep poverty (with incomes below half of the poverty line) hit a low of about 1.9 million in 2000, but is now at about 2.9 million. 

TANF caseloads failed to adequately respond to need during and in the years immediately following the Great Recession, when poverty was at a high.  Nationally, they rose modestly but returned to their pre-recession levels while poverty remained high.  In some states, the TANF caseloads didn’t respond at all to the increased need.

These opposing trends — TANF caseloads falling while poverty is rising — mean that TANF reaches far fewer poor families than AFDC did.  When TANF was enacted, nationally, 68 families received assistance for every 100 families in poverty; that number has since fallen to just 23 families receiving assistance for every 100 families in poverty. 

 

 

In a number of states, TANF provides cash assistance to a much smaller share of poor families than the national data suggest.  In 14 states, ten or fewer families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty. 

 

 

The growing gap between the number of single parents who are not working and the number of families receiving TANF also shows TANF’s limited reach to families in need.  In 1995, the number of families receiving cash assistance in an average month exceeded the number of single mothers who were not employed over the course of the year.  By 2015, the number of unemployed single mothers was more than 2.4 times the number of families receiving TANF in an average month.  This gap was substantial even before the recession, but it grew substantially during and just after the recession. 

 

 

The amount of cash assistance provided to families has eroded in almost every state, leaving families without sufficient funds to meet their most basic needs. 

Not only are fewer needy families receiving TANF cash benefits, but benefit levels for those who are on TANF are extremely low.  In the median state in 2017, a family of three received $429 per month; in 14 states, such a family received less than $300.  TANF benefits are below two-thirds of the federal poverty line in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and at or below 20 percent of the poverty line in 18 states.   

 

 

TANF benefits were not high in most states at the start of welfare reform, but most states have allowed their benefits to erode even further.  In all but three states, the real (inflation-adjusted) value of TANF cash benefits has fallen since welfare reform’s enactment and in the vast majority of states, TANF cash benefits today are worth at least 20 percent less today than in 1996. 

 

 

The impact on families is even greater than these data suggest, because as TANF benefits have declined, housing prices in many places have increased.  Consequently, TANF benefits cover only a fraction of a family’s housing costs, and housing is only one of the basic needs that a family must meet (although it is the largest for most families). The monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three is less than the estimated cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment in all states (based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rents, or FMRs).  Additionally, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three is currently less than half of the FMR in 30 states, compared with only seven states in 1996. Because modest housing is so often out of reach for TANF families they find themselves living in substandard conditions, doubled up with family or friends, or homeless.  

 

 

Although a key focus of welfare reform was on increasing employment among cash assistance recipients, states spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability. 

One of the key reasons for block granting TANF was to give states greater flexibility to help cash assistance recipients find and maintain work so they would no longer need assistance.  The theory was with more flexibility, states could take the funds they previously used for cash grants to help recipients find jobs and to cover the costs of work supports like child care and transportation.  While states modestly increased spending in these areas in TANF’s early years, they have not sustained the increases. 

Overall, states spent only 7 percent of their state and federal TANF funds on work activities in 2015, and 3 percent on work supports and supportive services like transportation. Ten states spent less than 5 percent of their funds on work activities and work supports/supportive services combined.  States spent 17 percent of their state and federal TANF funds on child care, with ten states spending less than 3 percent. 

States used 31 percent of their funds for other state services.  In some cases, states used TANF funds to expand programs like pre-K education, or to cover the growing costs of existing services, such as child welfare.  In other cases, they used TANF funds to replace existing state funds, freeing those state funds for purposes unrelated to providing a safety net or work opportunities for low-income families.  While these are worthy areas for state spending, states are diverting TANF dollars to them instead of funding the core TANF purposes of supporting work for parents and meeting basic needs of poor children. 

 

 

Employment among single mothers increased in the 1990s, but welfare reform was only one of several contributing factors.

The employment situation for never-married mothers with a high school or less education — the group of mothers that welfare reform affected most — has changed dramatically over the last several decades.  In the early 1990s, when states first made major changes to their cash welfare programs, only about half of these mothers worked.  Importantly, there was a very large employment gap between the share of these never-married mothers and single women without children with similar levels of education, suggesting that there was substantial room for these never-married mothers to increase their participation in the labor force. 

By 2000, the employment gap between these two groups of women closed, and it has remained so.  But the employment rate for both groups fell considerably in the years after.  The employment rate for never-married mothers is now only slightly higher than when welfare reform was enacted 20 years ago.  This suggests that the economy and low education levels are now the causes of limited employment among never-married mothers — not the availability of public benefits or another factor unique to never-married mothers.

 

 

The increase in labor force participation among never-married mothers that occurred in the 1990s is often cited as a major accomplishment of welfare reform.  Rigorous research suggests, however, that a strong labor market and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) played an even greater role.  A highly regarded study by University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Grogger found that welfare reform accounted for just 13 percent of the total rise in employment among single mothers in the 1990s.  The EITC (which policymakers expanded in 1990 and 1993) and the economy accounted for 34 percent and 21 percent of the increase, respectively. 

Furthermore, research shows that while work programs focused on encouraging cash welfare recipients to enter the labor market as soon as possible, this often did not put them in positions of stable employment.  Those with significant employment barriers often never found jobs even after participating in work-first programs.  The most successful programs over the long-term supported increasing participants’ education and skill level (often in combination with helping them to find jobs), rather than simply requiring them to work.

The TANF block grant was inequitable at the outset and only grew more inequitable over the next two decades.

When TANF was created, the federal government allocated block grant funds to states based on historical federal spending in TANF’s predecessors, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and related programs.  These allocations were highly unequal among states on a per-poor-child basis — and that basic formula has remained, with total state allocations fixed since TANF’s inception.  Many poor states chose to set very low cash assistance benefit levels under AFDC, so they received fewer federal TANF dollars per poor child than richer states.  In 1997, the block grant amount per poor child ranged from $332 in Arkansas to more than $2,000 in Alaska, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  Thirty states’ block grant allocations fell below the nationwide average of $1,168.

As a condition of receiving its full federal TANF block grant, a state must continue to spend 80 percent of its historic state spending, known as the state maintenance of effort (MOE) requirement. The MOE requirement also locked in lower state spending obligations for poorer states, creating a greater overall disparity in total TANF funding available per poor child among the states.  When factoring in this required state spending, the inequity in total TANF spending per poor child among the states in 1997 was even greater, ranging from $462 in Arkansas to $3,860 in Connecticut.

 

 

This basic formula hasn’t changed, with each state’s annual block grant funding remaining fixed since TANF’s inception.  As a result, between 1997 and 2015 the block grant lost 34 percent of its value nationwide on a per-poor-child basis.  But, because the block grant also doesn’t adjust for changes in the number of poor children due to population growth or economic conditions, some states have fared substantially worse than others.

 

 

TANF plays much less of a role in reducing poverty than AFDC did — and the provision of less cash assistance has contributed to an increase in deep or extreme poverty.

The share of children living in deep poverty (defined as living in families with incomes below half the poverty line) has increased since welfare reform was implemented, and research suggests that the loss of TANF benefits contributed to that growth.  TANF benefits are too low to lift many families out of poverty, but they can help reduce the depth of poverty. Unfortunately, TANF has proven far less effective at lifting families out of deep poverty than AFDC, mostly because fewer families receive TANF benefits than received AFDC benefits. (The erosion in the value of TANF benefits has also contributed.)  While AFDC lifted more than 2 million children out of deep poverty in 1995, TANF lifted only 635,000 children out of deep poverty in 2010.  

 

 

Researchers Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin have found that the number of households with children with monthly cash incomes equivalent to less than $2 per person per day — a standard of poverty more associated with third-world countries — has more than doubled since 1996.  Counting the value of tax credits and non-cash benefits — housing assistance, tax credits, and SNAP (formerly food stamps) — lowers these numbers considerably, but the growth in extremely poor households with children remains troubling: a 50 percent increase, to 613,000 families in 2011 even after adding in these non-cash benefits. This measure of extreme poverty rose “particularly among those most impacted by the 1996 welfare reform,” Shaefer and Edin found.

Conclusion

Many policymakers lift TANF up as a model for reforming other low-income programs.  Looking back over TANF’s history, it is impossible to reconcile the claims that welfare reform was an extraordinary success with the facts.  TANF has failed in its two main purposes: to provide a safety net and to adequately support parents in work.  First, TANF does not reach many families in need, even during hard economic times.  The benefits for families that do receive assistance have lost purchasing power, making it increasingly difficult for families to meet their basic needs.

Second, in TANF’s 21-year history, TANF work programs have not helped parents find and keep jobs that will lead to self-sufficiency.  Never-married mothers with a high school education or less made substantial gains in employment in only TANF’s first four years — largely due to the roaring economy in the late 1990s — and those gains have mostly eroded in the subsequent 17.  It is unlikely that we could see the same employment gains we saw in TANF’s early years in today’s labor market.     

Similarly, the record shows that we cannot rely solely upon states to increase opportunity for the poor.  When states’ cash assistance caseloads fell substantially in the late 1990s, states could have used some of the freed-up funds to increase recipients’ employability.  Instead, they made other choices, including using TANF funds to fill budget holes and to substitute for state funds they had previously used to provide assistance to poor families.  If they wanted to increase opportunity now, they could do so by using more of their TANF funds to help TANF recipients and other low-income parents gain the education and skills they need to qualify for jobs that will help them escape poverty.

Finally, in light of the growing body of research on the importance of income — and the devastating impact of poverty — on children’s early development, TANF’s far weakened role for families with the most significant employment barriers should concern those who want to provide a better future for poor children.  An entire generation of children has grown up under TANF’s current structure.  Policymakers should move forward expeditiously to ensure that the next generation has access to a more robust TANF program that both reaches more families in need and provides more meaningful education, training, and work opportunities that give families a reasonable chance of moving out of poverty.  TANF reform is long overdue.  We should fix its problems before embarking on reforms that will repeat its failures.