New TANF Spending Categories Shine Light On State Spending

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, new spending data for fiscal year (FY) 2015 shows that states continued to spend less than half of their block grants and related state funds on core activities, including cash assistance, work and training activities, and child care.

Under the TANF block grant, states have great flexibility to use funds to support a broad range of activities that benefit low-income families with children. Many states have used that flexibility to support services such as child welfare, pre-kindergarten programs, and after-school care. New reporting requirements for FY 2015 broke down expenditures into more specific categories, providing a clearer path to understanding the ways in which TANF supports such activities.

In FY 2015, 25 states spent less than half of their TANF and state maintenance of effort (MOE) funds on core activities. Additionally, basic assistance, as a share of federal and state TANF funds, decreased by nearly two percent. Seven states spent less than 10 percent of their TANF and MOE funds on basic assistance, and only three states spent more than 75 percent of TANF and MOE funds on core activities. TANF is intended to promote job preparation and work, yet less than 7 percent of all funds were spent on work, education, and training activities. Moreover, that modest expenditure may not have been used for families receiving assistance. States should focus their spending on core activities that help the families who are struggling most to make ends meet and progress toward long-term economic stability.

The new, more detailed reporting for expenditures shows that states spent 8 percent of TANF and related funds on child welfare services (including foster care) and 6 percent on Pre-Kindergarten/Head Start programs. However, spending varied significantly by state. For example, Georgia and Texas spent roughly 50 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of TANF and MOE funds on child welfare services. Louisiana and Texas spent roughly 30 percent and 38 percent, respectively, on pre-k and Head Start programs. While these are important services, this is not what TANF was originally intended to do. States are leveraging TANF flexibility to fund other services, rather than spending on TANF’s core purposes. 

The real value of the TANF block grant has declined by 33 percent due to inflation since TANF was created, and the use of TANF funds to support a wide range of services has further reduced the funding that is available for core activities. The result is a weak, deeply uneven safety net for the poorest families with children. Congress should set standards and hold states accountable for using TANF funds to serve these families.