Arizona Cuts TANF Lifetime Limit to 12 Months—Harshest in the Country

Effective July 1, Arizona will lower its lifetime limit on receipt of cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to just 12 months, the shortest in the nation. When this limit takes effect tomorrow, 938 families including 1,500 children will immediately lose benefits that allow them to meet basic needs, as well as the connection to services that help parents obtain skills, education, or employment. Moreover, families who have previously received TANF assistance for at least 12 months will no longer be able to receive help if they lose their job or have a new baby.

This move by Arizona is the latest in a series of draconian reductions in the lifetime limit, beginning in 2010 when the limit was lowered from 60 months to 36 months and continuing in 2011 when the state further reduced TANF’s lifetime limit to 24 months. In addition to lowering the number of months that families can receive assistance, in 2009, Arizona reduced the amount of cash assistance provided to families through TANF by 20 percent. As a result of all these cuts, for every 100 Arizona families in poverty, just nine receive cash benefits from TANF — down from 55 families before welfare reform in 1996, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Federal TANF law requires states to provide families with an adult receiving benefits no more than 60 months of federally funded TANF assistance. However, TANF does not establish minimum benefits, and many states have established shorter limits. The Arizona time limit even applies to families where a relative is not personally receiving benefits but is caring for a child who is eligible for assistance. The state will save less than one percent of its annual budget by limiting TANF eligibility.

TANF block grant funds can be used for a broad range of services that benefit low-income families. At the same time that Arizona has cut TANF benefits, it has increasingly used TANF funds to support child welfare activities. In FY 2014, Arizona reported three-quarters of combined TANF and state maintenance of effort (MOE) spending as “other,” which is possible because the structure of the block grant allows states to divert funds from TANF to plug budget holes in other areas. While child welfare is an important service, states should not divert TANF funds away from families in need to finance other shortfalls. Instead, states should spend general-fund dollars to address the increasing demands in other areas of the state budget. 

Limiting a critical work support such as TANF exacerbates the struggles families are experiencing and can make it harder for parents to get back in the workforce. According to Arizona’s TANF agency data, more than a quarter of the parents who will be cut off tomorrow are currently in education and training activities; losing benefits will make it harder for them to complete this training and find lasting work. These cuts will force more children into deep poverty and hardship, putting them at risk of lasting negative effects on their mental and physical health, as well as educational and economic outcomes. Arizona should reverse this ill-advised and short-sighted policy choice. And as part of TANF reauthorization, Congress should establish minimum standards for TANF benefits and require states to spend a minimum portion of their TANF funds on cash assistance, child care, and work activities.