Strengthening TANF for States and Needy Families

August 22, 2012 | Heather Hahn, Olivia Golden, Peter Edelman

This is a report by the Urban Institute.

 At a time of continued economic distress, high unemployment, and historically high child poverty rates, cash welfare assistance plays a very small role. Known formally as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, this cash assistance reaches fewer than one in three poor families nationally (about 1.5 percent of the total population). And of these families, almost half receive assistance only on behalf of a child, with no financial support for the adults' needs. Since TANF's implementation in 1997 (when it replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program), the share of poor families receiving assistance has fallen in all states, and the difference among states has grown.

Whether a family receives TANF assistance, and how much it receives, depends largely on the state in which the family lives. States are able to set their own TANF rules, usually reflecting the state's culture and philosophy about government's role in helping the poor. For example, while California generally has committed to a strong safety net, Texas has aimed to move people immediately into jobs and to avoid TANF dependency. In accordance with these state approaches, fewer than one in ten poor families receives assistance in Texas compared with almost three out four in California. Between the bookends of California and Texas are Washington State's goal to "make work pay" so families do not need to rely on TANF, Michigan's mission to support families that "play by the rules" while helping them find jobs, and Florida's philosophy that having a good job is a family's safety net.1 In none of these states, however, did TANF respond to the increased needs created by the recession.

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