Revised September 5, 2003


By Shawn Fremstad

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On September 3rd, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a press release announcing that participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program continued to decline during 2002 and early 2003.[1]  The HHS announcement coincided with the release of new data by the Census Bureau showing a marked rise in child poverty in 2002.[2],[3]  Without mentioning the increase in child poverty, Wade Horn, HHS Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, called the continued decline in welfare caseloads “encouraging.”

TANF is a key component of the nation’s safety net program for poor children and provides assistance and services that can both ease economic hardship and help parents find and keep jobs.  As a result, it is troubling — rather than encouraging — that fewer families were helped by TANF at the very time that more families were in need.  Coming during a period of economic weakness and a substantial decline in the number of jobs in the U.S. economy, and at a time when poverty and unemployment have increased significantly, the continued decline in the number of families receiving assistance through TANF is more appropriately viewed with concern than celebration.

In addition to the Census data on child poverty, other recent evidence indicates that declining TANF caseloads should be seen as a cautionary sign in this economy, rather than as evidence of welfare reform’s success:

The Administration should not ignore these warning signs.  Instead of touting caseload declines that are not accompanied by improvements in the economic security of low-income families, federal and state policymakers should work together to ensure that when families are in need, they are able to receive the basic assistance and help in securing employment that the TANF program can provide.  This is especially true during periods of economic weakness when jobs are harder to find.

End Notes:

[1]  ACF Press Office, “HHS Releases Data Showing Continuing Decline in Number of People Receiving Temporary Assistance,” September 3, 2003,

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey Change Profile 2001-2002,

[3] Technically, the recently released poverty data based on the 2002 American Community Survey do not represent calendar year 2002 estimates because of the way in which households were sampled.  For a discussion of these issues, see “New Census Data Show an Increase in Poverty,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, September 2003.

[4]  Mark Levitan and Robin Gluck, “Recession and Reauthorization:  The Economic Downturn and Federal Welfare Policy,” Community Service Society of New York, April 2003.

[5] Pamela Loprest, “Fewer Welfare Leavers Employed in Weak Economy,” Urban Institute, August 2003.

[6]  Pamela Loprest, “Disconnected Welfare Leavers Face Serious Risks,” Urban Institute, August 2003.

[7]  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Indicators of Welfare Dependence: Annual Report to Congress 2003, p. II-19.