During COVID-19, States Should Continue Waiving TANF Work Requirements and Time Limits

By Ashley Burnside

Our communities are more financially stable and our local economies thrive when people have access to income supports during times of financial hardship. By helping people meet their rent, buy groceries, or pay their babysitters, income support programs keep money circulating in the community. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) will be critical in limiting the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already caused millions of people to lose their jobs. States use TANF funds to provide monthly cash benefits and other supports to families who earn low incomes and have children. However, because so many barriers limit access to TANF cash assistance, only a little under 1 million families received cash assistance in September 2018—and half of them received benefits only for their children. States can and should reduce barriers to accessing TANF during the public health crisis to help families remain economically stable.

To receive monthly cash benefits, adult TANF recipients are typically expected to engage in a certain amount of work activities. If adults do not meet these work requirements, their entire family can be penalized, or “sanctioned,” and eventually lose their cash benefits. States determine their own work requirement and sanction policies within the context of a federal work participation rate standard. (You can learn more about TANF work requirement policies in our brief.)

The federal agency that administers TANF, the Administration for Children and Families, has clarified that states will receive good cause penalty relief for failures to meet the work participation rate due to the pandemic, meaning they will not face a fiscal penalty. In addition, many states have started waiving their TANF work requirement and sanction policies in response to the health crisis:

  • Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey and Washington have waived or suspended their TANF work requirements, among others. Indiana has suspended the upfront job search requirement for TANF applicants.
  • Illinois has granted work requirement exemptions for good cause to TANF recipients and has ordered their employment and training providers to stop sending TANF recipients to work and training sites during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • New York has stated that TANF recipients who can’t meet their work requirements due to COVID-19 related barriers must be granted good cause exemptions from the work requirement sanctions through May 15, 2020.

We believe it’s likely that, in practice, many other states are also granting good cause exemptions for failure to attend work activities. While it is good that families are not losing benefits, unless good cause exemptions are widely advertised, recipients may still believe that they need to choose between risking their health by going to work activities or keeping their cash benefits.

Under federal law, families with an adult can only receive federally funded TANF benefits for 60 months in a lifetime. States can choose to set their own time limits. As of 2018, 21 states had established shorter time limits than the federal five-year limit.  These limits mean that people who lose their jobs at a later point may be denied benefits regardless of their need or circumstances.

In the past few weeks, some states have temporarily frozen their time limit clocks and stopped the terminations of families who have reached their limit. For example:

  • California has halted its 48-month time limit until June 2020.
  • Connecticut has suspended its 21-month time limit from applying during any months of the public health and civil preparedness emergency.
  • Minnesota has suspended the termination of a family’s benefits for those who have reached the end of their time limit during the health crisis.

In addition, many states have extended TANF renewals for several months during the crisis. This prevents families from losing their benefits due to failure to submit paperwork and frees up agency staff to help people newly seeking assistance.

All states should waive their TANF work requirements for applicants and recipients. States should also freeze their time limits, extend their renewal policies, and cancel any mandated in-person meetings. In addition, they should consider increasing their TANF monthly benefits or providing additional emergency assistance grants to families struggling to make ends meet.