What a Shutdown Means for TANF

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

UPDATE: On January 14, the House unanimously passed H.R. 430, the TANF Extension Act of 2019, which would extend funding for TANF through June 30. The Senate cleared it by voice vote on January 22, and the president signed it into law on January 24.

Among other things, the two-week partial federal shutdown has halted federal spending for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, which funds cash assistance, job training, and other services for low-income families. 

This does not mean that there will be interruptions in TANF benefits. TANF is funded through a mixture of federal funds and state “maintenance of effort” (MOE) funds, so states can continue to provide benefits and services using state funds or unspent previously appropriated federal funds. The federal Administration for Children and Families explained these options in a letter sent prior to the 2013 shutdown. Unfortunately, one state unnecessarily stopped issuing benefits briefly in 2013, causing great harm to low-income families in that state. States should make whatever plans are necessary to avoid such problems. So far, we have not heard any reports of states suspending benefits.

Fortunately, other programs potentially affected by the shutdown that help people meet their basic needs are also likely to continue without interruption, at least for a while. The Department of Agriculture has stated that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has funding for January and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and other nutrition programs “can continue to operate at the state and local level with any funding and commodity resources that remain available.” However, over time, these resources might be exhausted. 

Shutdowns are wasteful and interfere with the efficient operation of all levels of government. And they certainly should not be a result of demands for a border wall that is a waste of taxpayer money and an affront to our American values. No one should spend the holidays worrying if they are going to have cash or food the next week. Agencies that serve low-income people should work to ensure continuity of services—and avoid uncertainty and confusion for the people they serve.