TANF Caseloads Increasing Only Modestly Despite Great Need

Jul 22, 2009

In every state, large numbers of needy families are not receiving temporary assistance. Given the economic climate and rising need, this is cause for concern.

Among the likely reasons for the modest increases in TANF receipt in the face of rising need are:

  • Long waits for appointments with caseworkers, and delays in the processing of applications and other paperwork;
  • Burdensome requirements imposed on applicants and participants, including job search expectations that have not been modified to reflect the economic times;
  • In some areas, caseworkers explicitly discourage applications for cash assistance;
  • Former recipients who were terminated due to time limits or sanctions may believe (correctly or not) that they are not eligible to reapply for benefits; and
  • Stigma about welfare receipt that may make newly eligible families reluctant to apply for cash assistance.

Since TANF was enacted in August 1996, the number of families receiving cash assistance has fallen by more than 60 percent.  In fact, caseloads continued to decline in nearly all states until late 2008, even as the nation slipped into recession. While it appears that caseloads are no longer decreasing overall - and are increasing by double digits in some states - the increases that are occurring are small compared to both the size of the previous decline and the extent of need. 

In general, the block grant structure of TANF and the caseload reduction credit create a disincentive for states to allow their caseloads to rise.  While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily addressed these incentives, by providing additional funding and a "hold-harmless" under the caseload reduction credit, many states' TANF policies are fixed by statute and do not immediately respond to such changes.  In addition, 13 years of strong messages to caseworkers that low caseloads are desirable and to families that cash assistance should be a last resort are not easily undone.

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