More to Learn about the Needs of Children Receiving TANF

Mar 23, 2012

By Abigail Newcomer

"Almost half of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cases are ‘child-only' cases, which arise when no adult is included in the benefit calculation."

 -- "TANF Child-Only Cases," The Urban Institute on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation

A significant share of  families receiving TANF cash assistance are "child-only," yet we know very little about how well this assistance meets the needs of the children receiving it. Families receive child-only benefits for many reasons, and each type of case has different implications for the family and the services it may need. A new brief released by the Administration for Children and Families explores what we know about families receiving child-only benefits, and outlines the research that is required to fully understand them. What's clear is there is no one policy solution for meeting these children's needs and more research is needed on the outcomes various policies would have for children.                      

Families receiving child-only benefits include parental cases, where a parent is present in the home, but does not qualify to receive TANF; and nonparental cases, where no parent is present. Within each of these broad categories, an array of sub-categories exists.

The most common reasons parents do not qualify to receive TANF are because they receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI); are non-citizens who do not qualify for benefits (most legal immigrants are banned from receiving assistance for five years after arrival); have been sanctioned for not meeting TANF work or child support requirements or other reasons; or have reached the TANF time limit. 

Nonparental cases occur when the parent is absent from the home and relatives, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, are raising these children, but are not themselves receiving cash assistance. The children's parents are often deceased, incarcerated, or otherwise incapable of caring for the children, and TANF assistance for this group is typically an alternative to foster care. However, the child-only TANF benefit is significantly lower than the amount that would be received as a foster care payment.

There is a great deal of variation among states in the distribution of child-only cases. Though no comprehensive analysis exists, the brief suggests that demographic differences and the policy choices states have made impact this variation. 

States have considerable flexibility in determining how they will implement federal policies. For example, states can choose whether or not to count the income of non-recipient parents or other caregivers when determining eligibility. In some instances, they can also choose to dedicate state funds to providing assistance to parents barred from receiving it under federal law. There is also flexibility in the interaction between child welfare and TANF policies for children in nonparental cases. Both sets of policies are complex, and these choices can lead similar families to be served in different programs.

This state variation is complicated by the complex needs of the children who receive child-only benefits. Many of them are at risk for material deprivation or emotional hardship. Though the experiences of children vary by sub-group and other factors, children whose parents are in the home, but not in the household unit considered for TANF eligibility, are generally poorer than those in nonparental cases. Those living with relative caregivers are likely to be better off economically than those living with their parents, but are at greater risk of poor mental health and unmet emotional and behavioral needs, often due to the traumatic situation that led to them living apart from their parents.

Given this diversity of circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As the brief asserts, there is a need for further research to parse out the various links between policy choices and the outcomes and needs of children. In the interim, CLASP recommends policymakers adhere to these themes:

  • Formulate policy reforms based on the needs of children: We know that children receiving child-only grants are not a homogenous group. They should not be lumped together and presumed to have the same set of needs simply because they receive the same type of public support.
  • Aim to connect children with other resources: Children receiving child-only benefits should be better connected with resources that allow their guardians and caregivers to meet their material and emotional needs. Policy solutions could include increasing the level of assistance for child-only recipients; streamlining the receipt of other public supports such as health insurance and food assistance; and providing additional case management and wraparound services, potentially through school or home-based services.
  • Cross train child welfare and TANF case managers: In many cases, these two sets of case managers address the needs of children with similar circumstances. By cross-training these staff, they will be better aware of the two systems and the best ways to serve children and families.
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