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date: 17 November 2019

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Abstract and Keywords

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federal block grant program with a state contribution requirement that supports the provision of state aid to low-income families with children in the United States, including but not limited to cash assistance. Created by the 1996 welfare reform law, which ended entitlement to cash benefits under TANF’s predecessor Aid to Families with Dependent Children, TANF cash aid includes time limits and work requirements. States are also free to set their own program rules and may use funds for purposes other than direct poverty relief and services for cash assistance clients. Consequently, TANF varies widely across states in generosity of benefits, behavioral rules to which clients must adhere, and in the uses of program resources, with only about one-quarter of all state and federal TANF funds used for traditional cash assistance. Other priorities funded under TANF include work supports and child care, programming to promote two-parent families, refundable tax credits, and support of state child welfare systems.

The end of entitlement to cash assistance under TANF was associated with a sharp decline in welfare caseloads and increases in employment in single-mother families nationwide. The initial implementation of TANF also coincided with a boom economy in the mid- to late-1990s and was immediately preceded by a large expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers. Studies disagree on the relative role each of these factors played in both caseload and employment trends, and women who moved off of welfare and into the labor force are often in unstable, low-paying jobs.

The defining characteristic of cash-assistance receiving families is deep economic deprivation, and benefits do not bring a household above official income poverty in any state. In most states, they do not even bring a family to 50% of poverty. Cash assistance under TANF nonetheless remains an important backstop for families in extremely difficult circumstances.

Keywords: TANF, welfare, cash assistance, low-income families, federalism, block grant, PRWORA, welfare reform


Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is the program more commonly known as “welfare” in the United States, though the word “welfare” is also an umbrella term used to describe other cash (e.g., Supplemental Security Income) and near-cash (e.g., the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) transfer programs. TANF was created by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), popularly called welfare reform, which ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The typical view of TANF is as a cash assistance program for very low-income families with children, differing from earlier programs in that it is time-limited and imposes rules regarding work and other behavioral requirements upon the adult beneficiaries. It is also implemented as a federal block grant to the states with a state “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement, affording subnational governments extensive flexibility over cash assistance benefit levels, rules, and administrative details within broad federal guidelines. All states administer cash assistance programs under the umbrella of TANF, and they vary widely in benefits generosity and rules. States also have incentives, in the form of federal work participation requirements and caseload reduction credits, to move beneficiaries off the cash assistance caseload. Caseloads have fallen sharply since the implementation of TANF, though there is variation in the degree of decline across states (Bentele & Nicoli, 2012).

While TANF is well known as a cash assistance program, it is actually a funding mechanism, and states have wide leeway over both cash assistance rules and the uses of TANF resources. Federal funds and state MOE may be directed to any programming consistent with the four goals contained in the original PRWORA bill: ending dependence on public support through work and marriage, encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families, reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, and facilitating the care of children in their own homes (Falk, 2017). Beyond traditional cash benefits, states have directed TANF funds toward purposes ranging from support of their child welfare systems to implementation of state-level refundable earned income tax credits (state EITCs) for low-income workers. As of 2016, only about one-quarter of all state and federal TANF funds are directed toward cash assistance; combining spending on cash assistance with work supports and child care—the seeming core of the program—only accounts for approximately slightly more than half of all TANF expenditures (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018). Additionally, neither the TANF block grant nor the state MOE requirement has ever been adjusted for inflation; thus the changing value of the dollar has considerably eroded the resources devoted to TANF since the late 1990s.

Traditional cash benefits for low-income families under TANF now constitute only a relatively small component of the social safety net. Programs such as the EITC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly the Food Stamps Program) are far larger, both by participation rates and by public expenditures. However, TANF remains an important—albeit much reduced—economic backstop for some very vulnerable families. It also offers insight into the strengths and challenges posed by the devolution of policymaking authority through federal block grants to the states. Despite its diminished place in the overall social safety net today, as compared to the 1990s, it remains a useful program for social work and social policy professionals to understand.

Historical Context

The roots of TANF can be traced to the progressive era of the early 1900s. Beginning with Illinois in 1911, 44 states implemented mothers’ pension programs prior to the onset of the Great Depression. Mothers’ pensions were direct cash aid intended to ensure that deserving, and primarily widowed, mothers did not have to enter the labor force and could instead tend to child-rearing in the absence of a male earner. The timing of policy adoption was associated with organized action by women’s groups, with the states of the South among the last adopters. These programs were generally quite meagerly funded, and—in a preview of a theme that carries through to contemporary welfare policy—included rules defining acceptable behavior for beneficiaries. Implementation of mothers’ pension programs was frequently left up to still lower-level units of government, such as counties, leading to wide variation in availability and administration even within the states that adopted them (Skocpol, 1992). The programs also tended to exclude black recipients, whether as a by-product of a focus on urban areas (blacks lived predominantly in rural areas at the time) or through deliberate policy design choices (Skocpol, 1992; Ward, 2005). Economic relief for low-income families became a federal priority in the 1930s in response to the dramatic rise in poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was created as one component of the Social Security Act of 1935, the foundation of the modern American welfare state. Under ADC, the federal government provided a partial match of state expenditures incurred in delivering cash aid to low-income families with children (Weaver, 2000). It subsumed the existing state pension programs and encouraged their expansion.

ADC—renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962—initially continued to offer states and localities extensive control over benefit levels and behavioral rules. As with the earlier state pension programs, rules and operational procedures were often designed such that African American families were limited in their ability to participate (Ward, 2005). The racialization of policy was most explicit in the South through, for instance, the use of “suitable home” rules to determine whether benefits for black clients would be withheld or withdrawn (Lieberman, 1998). As blacks migrated into northern cities in the 1950s and 1960s, cash benefits initially provided a vehicle for white politicians to capture the votes of blacks in “machine” politics cities (Lieberman, 1998). Their growing representation on the cash assistance rolls, however, contributed to a national racialized backlash against welfare. A newfound emphasis on fraud and enforcement of provisions such as “man-in-the-house” rules, in which benefits could be withdrawn if there was a male earner present in purportedly single-mother households, commenced (Lieberman, 1998). Despite limited benefits and the use of punitive and demeaning policy tools, the number of AFDC cases expanded in the 1950s and 1960s (Lieberman, 1998). A series of Supreme Court decisions overturned many of the rules previously used to exclude black families and made AFDC a de facto categorical entitlement nationwide in the late 1960s, a period that also saw a sharp increase in benefits receipt plateauing in the early 1970s (another rise in cases occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a trend discussed later in this article) (Katz, 1989; Weaver, 2000). A steep decline in public opinion toward “welfare” also followed (Teles, 1996).

Politically, AFDC had few ardent supporters. Conservatives in particular disliked its work disincentives and felt it created a culture of permissiveness that exacerbated rather than relieved the problems of poverty (Mead, 1986). Radical observers maintained that it was a tool of social control designed to tamp unrest during times of economic strife (Piven & Cloward, 1971). Beneficiaries, meanwhile, had to engage in off-the-books work and other opportunities to supplement meager levels of support, often in violation of program rules (Edin & Lein, 1997). Also a deep entanglement between cash assistance and racial politics remained even after the program attained quasi-entitlement status. Public opinion research, for example, found that whites expressing negative opinions of blacks also tended to disapprove of welfare. Media images of people in poverty also featured racial and ethnic minorities disproportionate to their actual representation among the economically disadvantaged (Gilens, 1999). There were several notable but failed attempts to reform AFDC in the 1970s and 1980s, including plans by the Nixon administration to replace it with a limited type of guaranteed annual income termed the Family Assistance Plan (Weaver, 2000). Smaller-scale changes did take place despite the failure of comprehensive legislative reform, in particular through the use of executive waivers of federal requirements for states in the latter years of AFDC.

Prelude to Reform: The Waiver Era

The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations all provided states with executive waivers of federal requirements to experiment with alternative approaches to AFDC. This authority, under section 1115 of the Social Security Act (SSA), provides the executive branch the ability to approve state demonstration projects experimenting with delivery of certain programs authorized under the SSA. Under Reagan, who authorized 15 waivers in 14 states, waivers were fairly narrow and often focused on “welfare-to-work” activities. These actions set a precedent for the reassertion of state discretion in implementation of AFDC. Under George H. W. Bush’s administration (approval of 15 applications from 12 states), cost neutrality standards imposed by section 1115 were relaxed. Rather than demonstrating ongoing cost neutrality, states could argue that an upfront investment in, for example, a job training program would have future payoffs that offset high initial costs in later years. These new standards gave states the opportunity to experiment with more ambitious efforts. Some states also developed program changes that moved beyond encouraging work and instead focused on the family unit, such as the imposition of caps restricting benefits for children born while the mother was receiving AFDC and changing the treatment of two-parent families relative to the existing federal standard. Waiver approvals reached their zenith in the Clinton administration, with approval of 83 waivers from 43 states and the District of Columbia (some of these Clinton-era projects were either in their initial stages of implementation or in the planning phase when welfare reform finally passed in 1996) (Harvey, Camasso, & Jagannathan, 2000; Teles, 1996; Weaver, 2000). Despite the reform activity at the state level in the late 1980s and early 1990s, AFDC caseloads actually reached a peak in 1994 (Crouse & Waters, 2014).

Welfare Reform

In its latter years, the executive branch encouraged changes to AFDC at the state level via waiver authority; however, large-scale change remained elusive. An opportunity to truly and comprehensively reform AFDC at the federal level finally emerged in the 1990s. Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat, campaigned partly on a promise to “end welfare as we know it” and was elected president in 1992. He devoted the initial years of his administration to a failed health care reform effort, and then turned his attention to welfare. In 1994, meanwhile, Republicans won a wave election in Congress, taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952. They campaigned on a “Contract with America” containing specific policy proposals, including a proposal to reform AFDC by adding time limits, work requirements, and a cap on benefits for additional children born to a mother already receiving welfare (Weaver, 2000). Both the president and key leaders in Congress, then, agreed on the broad goal of reforming AFDC. Further, given Clinton’s failure to reform health care, he seemingly required a major policy victory to improve his public standing. Led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, congressional Republican proposals tended to align with their Contract with America model, requiring work within two years, imposing a family cap, and placing a five-year lifetime limit on benefit receipt. Congressional proposals were generally stricter than Clinton preferred, including cuts to other programs such as the EITC, the health insurance program Medicaid, and the Food Stamps Program. Clinton therefore vetoed two congressional welfare reform bills before finally signing a third, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (Falk, 2019b; Weaver, 2000).

As discussed in “Introduction,” PRWORA had multiple explicit goals related to the perceived social and economic problems associated with AFDC. PRWORA ended AFDC and its quasi-entitlement to cash assistance, replacing it with TANF. Unlike AFDC, PRWORA incorporated time limits and work requirements for beneficiaries. It also returned a great deal of welfare policymaking authority to the states. Finally, PRWORA made changes to other federal programs, for example, tightening eligibility requirements for the Food Stamps Program. Its signature achievement, though, was the creation of TANF.

TANF Program Structure

Unlike AFDC, in which the federal government partially matched state expenses, TANF is a federal block grant with a state “maintenance of effort” requirement. The block grant is calculated based on federal per-state expenditures on AFDC and related programs in the early 1990s. Specifically, the state’s allocation is determined by the largest of three amounts: average federal expenditures in the state in 1992 through 1994, federal expenditures in the state in 1994, or federal expenditures in the state in 1995. Similarly, the state’s MOE requirement is based on spending in the early 1990s, but the basis of the calculation is slightly different. MOE is set at 75% of state spending, of the state’s own funds, on AFDC and related programs in 1994. State failure to meet the MOE requirement is subject to a financial penalty against the federal block grant, with the state losing $1 of current-year federal funds for each $1 shortfall in the previous year’s MOE contribution. The state’s MOE requirement also increases to 80% of 1994 expenditures if the state fails to meet its work activity participation targets. Federal TANF policy sets different guidelines for state uses of block grant and MOE funds, though states have extensive discretion over both. Surplus block grant funds may, for instance, be carried over from year to year, whereas the state must meet the MOE requirement annually. A portion of the block grant (up to 10% per year) may be transferred to bolster the state’s activities under the more general Social Services Block Grant, but MOE funds may not be so used (Falk, 2017, 2019a).

Neither the block grant value nor the MOE requirement, despite being based on spending on 1990s-era state AFDC programs, has ever been adjusted for inflation. Their value has therefore eroded over time simply through the changing value of the dollar. A federal contingency fund is available to bolster state spending during economic down periods. Contingency fund eligibility is triggered by specific changes in either the unemployment rate or participation in the SNAP (formerly the Food Stamps Program). Contingency funds add up to 20% of the state’s federal allocation. The contingency fund was entirely depleted in 2010 due to the “Great Recession” of the late 2000s, though funding was restored in 2011 (Falk, 2017). Additional TANF emergency funds were also made available to the states through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the package of stimulus policies the federal government passed in response to the recession (Office of Family Assistance, 2012).

While TANF is a federal program, its block grant with MOE structure affords the states extensive discretion and flexibility. Funded activities must, with some exceptions, align with the four goals of reform (states may continue to fund activities not aligned with the goals of welfare reform but that had been approved uses of AFDC funds prior to 1996; these grandfathered activities may only be funded from the federal block grant—grandfathered activities do not meet the state MOE requirement). As mentioned previously, states must also meet their MOE financial obligations or face a block grant penalty. However, states must meet requirements beyond simply contributing MOE. A key purpose of TANF is to encourage work for adults in low-income families, and this priority is reflected in state requirements. States must meet a work activity target for cash assistance beneficiaries. Failure to meet the target incurs a block grant penalty. If so penalized, a state is expected to make up for the shortfall using its own funds (Falk, 2017). The target is currently set at 50% of cash-benefit receiving families and 90% of two-parent cash-benefit receiving families participating in work activities. Consistent with other components of the program, states have a great deal of leeway in defining acceptable work activities within federal guidelines, and such activities might include traditional private-sector employment, job search, skills training or education directly related to employment, subsidized employment, and community service (Falk, 2017). Note, however, that post-secondary education is generally not considered an allowable activity, a restriction that some analysts have criticized given the long-term economic returns of higher education (Pandey & Kim, 2008).

States are further encouraged to keep caseloads low through caseload reduction credits. For every one percentage point reduction in the cash assistance caseload compared to a baseline, states receive a one percentage point reduction in the work activity target. The original baseline was the state’s 1995 AFDC caseload. The target was amended via the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, resetting the baseline to the state’s 2005 TANF cash assistance caseload. States also receive credits for contributing MOE beyond their baseline federal requirement (Falk, 2017).

Federal Policy Action Since Reform

TANF has undergone few federal legislative changes since its creation under PRWORA. After its initial authorization expired in 2002, it was temporarily extended on a short-term basis several times until 2006. In early 2006, TANF was formally reauthorized under the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005. The DRA extended TANF funding through 2010. Its most important policy change was an expansion of the state work activity requirements by applying them to certain MOE-funded activities. The DRA also included funds dedicated to research and programming related to marriage and indexed state caseload benchmarks to 2005 rather than 1995 participation levels (Falk, 2019b). The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the “stimulus bill,” in response to the large economic downturn beginning in 2007–2008, included some additional emergency funds ($5 billion total) for states to support programs under the umbrella of TANF. Under this initiative, the federal government reimbursed states up to 80% of the increases in spending (due to increased demand) in cash assistance, subsidized jobs programs, and alternative, short-term benefit programs intended to meet specific needs without the client enrolling in the state’s traditional cash assistance program (Office of Family Assistance, 2012).

As of 2018, TANF has once again been unsupported by a long-term reauthorization. It has instead been subject to a series of short-term extensions since expiration of its authorization under the DRA in 2010. These laws have made few changes to the federal TANF program, instead simply extending the program temporarily and as-is. The two exceptions were relatively minor with some one-time additional reporting requirements for the states, additional specifications on the use of marriage and fatherhood funding in 2010, and restrictions on cash assistance benefit withdrawals at adult entertainment venues, casinos, and liquor stores in 2012 (Falk, 2019b). Policy changes have occurred at the state level, but large-scale federal policy alterations have been limited in the two decades since passage of PRWORA.

Tribal TANF

The major components of TANF are the federal block grant to the states with a state MOE requirement. TANF also includes provisions for separate programs administered by federally recognized Native American tribes or Alaska Native villages. Tribes or villages wishing to administer their own TANF programs—which must follow the same general requirements as the state TANF programs—submit an application and TANF plan to the Administration for Children and Families. If approved, the tribe(s) or village(s) receive(s) a portion of the federal block grant designated for the state in which the tribe or village resides. States may also support tribal TANF programs using their own funds and count this contribution as MOE, though they are not required to do so. As of 2015, 284 tribes or villages were served by 70 Tribal TANF programs (Office of Family Assistance, 2017).

Broad Effects of TANF

Effects of specific cash assistance rules are discussed under “State Program Variation.” This section describes the overall, national effects of TANF as a federal program. The natural place to begin such a discussion is to consider events in the wake of TANF’s replacement of AFDC. Further, after the initial years of implementation—which featured a flurry of research activity in multiple academic and professional fields—research on TANF slowed considerably (Tach & Edin, 2017). Much of what is known about the effects of TANF, then, comes from these initial few years. At least as judged by criteria such as decreasing cash assistance caseloads and increased employment among low-income single mothers, welfare reform appears to be a success. Even the initial wave of post-PRWORA research, however, found reasons for concern, in particular regarding whether the perceived successes were conditioned on other factors, whether employment gains are durable over time, and whether these gains led to improvements in substantive well-being in affected households.

Economic Effects

The implementation of welfare reform was associated with a sharp decline in cash assistance caseloads and an increase in employment in low-income, single-mother-headed families (Grogger & Karoly, 2005). There was, and remains, much debate among analysts about welfare reform’s direct role in these trends. The policy changes of PRWORA were immediately preceded by a large expansion of the EITC for low-wage workers (especially those with children). The mid- to late-1990s also featured a boom economy with nearly full employment. Researchers generally agree that all three factors—welfare reform, EITC expansion, and the economy—played some role in the observed trends in both employment and caseloads, but studies using different data sources and analytical methods place different weight on each explanatory element (Fang & Keane, 2004; Grogger, 2003; Snarr, 2013). The effects of TANF and the EITC may further be conditioned on the state of the economy, facilitating work participation when the economy is comparatively strong but having a reduced role during economic downturns (Herbst, 2008; Noonan, Smith, & Corcoran, 2007).

Leaving welfare for work benefited some low-income families, as even low-wage jobs have the potential for higher earnings than the most generous state’s welfare benefits (Danziger, Heflin, Corcoran, Oltmans, & Wang, 2002). Not all were made better off, however, and even very early TANF research indicated that some households were actually economically worse off in the wake of welfare reform (Moffitt, 2001). Additionally, while formal employment by single mothers did increase in the mid-1990s concurrent with EITC expansion and TANF implementation, it actually declined in general throughout the first decade of the 2000s. The employment rate of single mothers also fell sharply during the “Great Recession.” These patterns in single-mother employment in the 2000s also, though, are nearly identical to the trends in employment rates of single women with no children (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2017). Beyond simply engaging in work, an additional concern is lack of access to adequate employment for low-income single mothers; the risk of poverty increased during the 2000s for single mothers unable to obtain full-time employment, for example (Damaske, Bratter, & Frech, 2017).

The employment outcomes and correlated effects of reform on welfare leavers were the focus of many of the initial evaluations of TANF. In its second decade, analysts directed increasing attention to TANF’s place in the social safety net. What were the implications of the declining accessibility of cash assistance and its transition from a pure cash transfer program to a vehicle for facilitating work? Given TANF’s fixed block grant and MOE structure, there are questions regarding whether it is adequately countercyclically responsive. During the Great Recession, for example, participation in TANF cash assistance changed very little on the national front. In sharp contrast, patterns in other programs such as SNAP/food stamps and unemployment insurance tracked economic conditions fairly well (Moffitt, 2013). Sensitivity to economic conditions, however, varies by state, and an examination of state-level patterns indicates that some were very responsive to changing economic conditions while others were unresponsive (Haskins, Albert, & Howard, 2014). Researchers have also noted a rise in “disconnected” families—families not engaged in work and not receiving support from public programs—in the TANF era. The risk of disconnection is associated with state welfare rule choices, in particular the length of time limits and the generosity of benefits, suggesting but not proving a link to welfare reform (Hetling, Kwon, & Saunders, 2015). Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (2015) document an increase in extreme income poverty—households with less than $2 per person per day in cash income—in the United States in recent decades. They attribute the emergence of this form of economic deprivation to the declining accessibility of cash assistance, removing the income floor once available to low-income households with children.

Much like the quantitative research, qualitative studies of the economic lives of low-income families in the TANF era present a far more nuanced portrait than the initial headline findings of caseload declines and employment increases conveyed. For adults leaving welfare, employment carries its own expenses, though many of these difficulties face all low-wage workers. Transportation to jobs, for example, is costly in terms of both money and time. Childcare is often challenging to arrange, yet single mothers affected by TANF must balance child-rearing and other family obligations with work activities. Work-family balance is particularly difficult for those employed on an hourly basis, as that type of employment often lacks accommodations such as sick time, paid leave, or vacation time. Further, the jobs available to welfare leavers or potential welfare clients are often in the service sector, with better-paying but low-skilled jobs such as manufacturing work increasingly scarce. Even as it pays more than cash benefits, such work does not necessarily bring a household above the poverty threshold (Collins & Mayer, 2010; Edin & Shaefer, 2015; London, Scott, Edin, & Hunter, 2004; Morgen, Acker, & Weigt, 2015).

Changes in the low-wage labor market also shape the employment experiences of the low-income mothers who are the primary target/recipients of TANF. Increases in temporary and contract work and flexible scheduling practices make income unpredictable. Mothers who may once have turned to traditional cash assistance as a temporary stabilizer now find it less accessible under latter-day TANF, and so instead use alternative strategies such as selling blood plasma to make ends meet (Edin & Shaefer, 2015). The EITC is a boon for those sufficiently engaged in work, but even its beneficiaries frequently face serious economic challenges such as high debt from a variety of sources. By predicating benefits on work, the EITC is also actually weakest during times of high unemployment (Morgen et al., 2015). For all its well-documented benefits, the EITC therefore does not fully alleviate the hardships of families that previously might have been welfare recipients. In sum, qualitative research indicates that the economic prospects for low-income single mothers remain challenging, even with the rise of work supports such as a generous EITC.

Other Effects

PRWORA is often thought of as the “welfare to work bill,” and many studies of TANF therefore focus on cash assistance receipt and labor force participation. TANF also has behavioral goals, however, specifically related to promoting marriage and reducing out-of-wedlock births. Additionally, economic effects—like increased income from work—might reasonably be related to other outcomes such as child development and academic performance. Paralleling the general tendency in economic research on TANF, research in other domains presents mixed findings. With respect to family structure, for example, a classic concern—one prominent in the debate over welfare reform—was that welfare availability disincentivized marriage. Research finds that marriage effects of cash assistance receipt, while present, are temporary; past welfare receipt is not a strong predictor of the likelihood of marriage among single mothers (Teitler, Reichman, Nepomnyaschy, & Garfinkel, 2009). Studies have generally not found a connection between TANF and childbearing, which is notable given PRWORA’s stated goal of reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock births.

TANF and its predecessor programs focus on families with children, yet child well-being in TANF-participating households has not received the same degree of attention as employment and related economic outcomes among adults. Among those studies that have been conducted, few effects are generally found and those changes that are uncovered are often small in magnitude. One of the earliest post-PRWORA studies of child well-being in families transitioning between welfare and work found no relationship to the behaviors and academic skills of very young children. Some modest relationships were found with respect to the mental health and behavior of adolescents when the mother transitions between welfare and work, however (Chase-Lansdale et al., 2003). Increased earnings via employment may improve child achievement (Duncan, Gennetian, & Morris, 2007). The period of welfare receipt is a time of high maternal stress, though, and could in turn be an influence on negative externalizing behaviors such as engaging in bullying; these effects fade with time, but children of welfare-leaving mothers are still at a higher risk of externalizing behaviors than otherwise similar children whose mothers never received welfare (Kim, Padilla, Zhang, & Oh, 2018). Other research indicates that strict parental work requirements have negative effects in the first years of life, being associated with lower cognitive ability, and that maternal employment may increase depression among mothers and reduces the likelihood of both breastfeeding and reading to children (Herbst, 2017).

Research also finds effects of TANF in a variety of other areas, though it once again frequently presents mixed results. One study of the relationship between welfare reform and health, for example, indicates that welfare reform did not affect overall rates of single-mother households that remained uninsured, but it was associated with decreased use of Medicaid and increased private insurance coverage (Narain, Bitler, Ponce, Kominski, & Ettner, 2017). Still other research finds that public benefits access for former felons—banned by federal law but allowing some opt-outs for states—is related to a reduced risk of recidivism (Yang, 2017). While conducted under AFDC rather than TANF, some research even argues that engagement with a supervisory bureaucracy, such as that used to administer “welfare” under either policy, reduces a citizen’s sense of political engagement and efficacy, with subsequent consequences for representative democracy (Soss, 1999). Overall, then, it appears that welfare broadly and TANF specifically has consequences in a number of social domains. Effects are often nuanced, however, and apparent gains in one area may be offset by challenges in another.

Number and Characteristics of TANF Cash Assistance Participants

In the fiscal year 2016, an average of 2,763,514 individuals (adults and children) in 1,207,014 families received cash benefits nationally under TANF in a given month. Of the individual beneficiaries, an average of 2,123,873 were children under the age of 18 and 639,677 were adults. Note that these figures include only individuals and families reported to the federal government as participating in the state’s formal cash assistance program supported by federal block grant funds. These values do not include individuals participating in other services or “separate state programs,” activities that count toward the MOE requirement but which are not supported by federal block grant funds (Administration for Children and Families, 2017b). Current caseloads have declined dramatically from 1994 AFDC levels, when an average of 14,225,651 individuals in 5,046,326 families received support in a given month. The 1994 figures included 9,595,846 children and 4,629,806 adults (Administration for Children and Families, 2004). The total number of individual beneficiaries in 2016 was approximately 19% of the total number at the 1994 caseload peak. Similar declines are seen in the counts of families (24% of the 1994 value), adult beneficiaries (14%), and children (22%). Figure 1 presents the national, monthly average AFDC or TANF cash assistance caseloads (families) from 1990 to 2016, showing the national peak in 1994 and rapid decline in the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Temporary Assistance for Needy FamiliesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Average monthly count of cash assistance cases (families) in millions.

Author’s calculation from Administration for Children and Families (2017a, 2017b) data.

Financial Circumstances

The defining characteristic of families receiving cash assistance is deep poverty. As discussed subsequently under the section “State Program Variation,” cash assistance benefit levels vary widely by state, but in no case do cash benefits bring a family even close to approaching the formal poverty threshold. The cash benefit a family receives is, in most states, dependent on number of children and other household circumstances (two states offer a fixed benefit regardless of household composition). Nationally, however, a family enrolled in cash assistance in 2016 received an average of $406 in monthly benefits. During this same time period, of all cash assistance-receiving families, approximately 18% had income outside the TANF program. This additional income is still meager, however, averaging only approximately $867 per month among those families with outside income. Of those adults on the cash assistance caseload, slightly more than one-quarter, 28%, were currently employed. Approximately 11% of all TANF families received income from child support, with a monthly average of $233 in support among those families in 2016. Unsurprisingly, given their extreme financial need, many TANF recipients participate in other public support programs. In 2016, approximately 87% received some type of public medical assistance and nearly 84% participated in the SNAP program (receiving an average of $371 in SNAP benefits). Only a fraction, however, received subsidized housing (11%) or subsidized childcare (7%) (Administration for Children and Families, 2017a).


Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented on the cash assistance rolls. In 2016, approximately 28% of recipients were white while 29% were black. Over one-third, 37%, identified as Hispanic (note that, as an ethnic identity, Hispanics can be of any race). Other groups were represented in far smaller numbers, with about 2% identifying as Asian and 2% Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander; 3% identified as multiracial. Nationally, in 2016 over half of adult recipients, approximately 52%, were age 29 or younger, 31% were between the ages of 30 and 39, and 17% age 40 or older. A clear majority, 71%, of adult recipients are unmarried, with only 14% married. The remainder of cash assistance-receiving adults are either widowed or separated/divorced. Among child recipients, 39% were age five or younger, 35% were between the ages of 6 and 11, and 26% ages 12 to 18. About 4% of the national caseload was composed of teen parents (Administration for Children and Families, 2017a).

The vast majority of cash assistance recipients are U.S. citizens. Among adult recipients, 91% were citizens in 2016 while 8% were “qualified immigrants”—a special status granted to certain categories of immigrants and refugees exempt from normal federal limits on immigrant participation in redistributive programs. Among children, these numbers are even starker, with 98% of child recipients holding U.S. citizenship and only 2% receiving benefits under qualified immigrant status. Educational attainment among adult cash assistance recipients is generally low, with only 8% having an education beyond high school. Slightly more than half, 55%, completed the 12th grade, so between these two categories a majority graduated from high school. However, the sizable remaining fraction, 37%, completed less than the 12th grade (Administration for Children and Families, 2017a).

State Program Variation

Given the extensive flexibility offered to states, the experiences of two otherwise-identical families applying for and participating in TANF cash assistance might be quite different across the nation. States have discretion over fairly obvious rules such as benefit levels, time limits, work requirements, and sanctions for rules violations, but there are also innumerable and less visible areas over which states vary, such as in the treatment of various types of income. Studies of state TANF policy choices in the wake of welfare reform identified several predictors of policy differences, including factors such as economic conditions and government ideology (Fellowes & Rowe, 2004; Soss, Schram, Vartanian, & O’Brien, 2001). A key predictor of policy design, however, was race. States with larger proportions of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly blacks, on the caseload or in the population tended to design more punitive programs, offered less generous benefits, devoted less financial effort to reform, and experienced steeper caseload declines in the initial period of TANF implementation (Bentele & Nicoli, 2012; Fellowes & Rowe, 2004; Rodgers & Tedin, 2006; Soss, Fording, & Schram, 2011). More recent research also suggests a role for growing economic inequality, with greater economic disparities associated with reduced state benefit generosity (Scruggs & Hayes, 2017).

The federal government ceding control of policy to the states is termed “devolution.” Devolved policy has a number of theoretical advantages over purely centralized policy, including the ability for states to experiment with different policy designs and to learn from one another’s successes and challenges. There is some evidence that such processes occurred in the early years of reform, with states abandoning policies found to be ineffective in other states (Volden, 2016). In addition to learning from one another, states can also compete with each other economically. With a policy such as cash assistance, such competition can theoretically produce a “race to the bottom.” The logic behind the “race to the bottom” hypothesis begins by assuming that states do not wish to become “welfare magnets” attractive to disadvantaged populations because of generous benefits. If high benefits induce migration into the state by individuals and families eligible for those benefits, it places a strain on the public budget, which in turn requires increasing taxes. The state then becomes less attractive to economically well-off households. Anticipating these possibilities, states will, theoretically, compete with one another to have less generous benefits and more restrictive rules and participation criteria. The empirical evidence for the “race to the bottom” is mixed but, at least in the latter years of AFDC and early years of TANF, leaned toward supporting the existence of a “race” in benefit levels (Brueckner, 2000).

Under TANF, states have control over an array of cash assistance policy design details. It is not possible in a brief overview to describe all cross-state differences, some of which have also changed over time. This section therefore describes state variation in six key policy areas: cash assistance benefit levels, time limits, work requirements, sanctions, family caps, and diversion. It provides a broad overview of state variation by describing the range of contemporary policy in these areas and what is known about the effects of different state policy design choices. Some states also engage in “second-order devolution,” in which some policymaking and implementation authority is granted to still lower levels of government such as counties. Second-order devolution is itself a policy design choice, and it results in within-state variation in TANF cash assistance with both positive (e.g., improved employment outcomes) and negative (e.g., increased use of punitive tools) implications for program clients (Kim & Fording, 2010).

Cash Benefits

States vary widely in the value of their cash benefits for families, but they are modest in even the most generous cases. In 2015, the maximum benefit for a family of three ranged from $170 per month in Mississippi to $923 per month in Alaska. The highest benefit level for a family of three in the continental United States was $789 per month in New York. The median value, again for a family of three, among the 50 states and the District of Columbia was $429 per month while the mean was $444 per month. The maximum benefit does not bring a family out of official poverty in any state. In 2015, the poverty threshold for a family of one adult and two related children was $19,096 in annual income or approximately $1,591 per month (United States Census Bureau, 2018). Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the maximum TANF benefit brought a family of three to more than half of this value in Alaska only. The maximum benefit for a family of three was less than one-quarter of the official poverty threshold in 22 states (author’s calculations from data provided by the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research, 2016).

Cash Assistance Time Limits

A major shift in the transition from cash assistance as a quasi-entitlement under AFDC to contemporary TANF was the adoption of time limits for cash assistance beneficiaries. The federal guidelines specify that a family head may receive cash benefits for no more than five years (60 months) in her lifetime. The majority of states adopted either the federal 60-month limit or a shorter lifetime limit. As of 2015, 12 states have lifetime caps shorter than 60 months, though in some of these cases there are exceptions due to factors such as hardship that can extend the limit to the federal 60 months. In 2015, Arizona, which previously had a two-year lifetime limit, adopted a lifetime cap of just a single year of benefits receipt to become the strictest in the nation with regard to lifetime eligibility (Floyd, 2016). In addition to the lifetime limit, some states impose a periodic limit under which benefits may only be received in a set period of time even if the family has not yet reached the state’s lifetime maximum. In Louisiana in 2015, for example, a unit may only receive benefits for 24 months within a given 60-month period even though the state’s lifetime limit is the full federal 60 months. In Ohio in 2015, after a family received benefits for 36 months the unit became ineligible for additional assistance for two years (Urban Institute, 2016).

Time limits decrease cash benefits participation by low-income families and, by extension, reduce caseloads. The caseload reduction function of time limits operates through two channels. First, time limits have a direct effect, as participants reaching the time limit are then dropped from the cash assistance caseload. Second, time limits encourage “banking” behavior. An otherwise eligible head of household, aware of time limits, may hesitate to receive cash assistance or limit the duration of participation to maintain a larger pool of future eligibility (Grogger & Karoly, 2005).

Work Requirements

In conjunction with time limits, the other key policy shift for cash assistance beneficiaries in the transition from AFDC to TANF was the adoption of work requirements. The federal guideline indicates that adults on the cash assistance rolls must engage in work activity within 24 months of receiving benefits. “Work activity” is, however, defined fairly broadly federally, and includes activities such as actual employment, job search, substance abuse and mental health treatment when prescribed by a relevant professional, community service, and job training and education (Falk, 2017). Higher education is not generally an approved work activity for federal purposes unless directly related to job preparation. As with other policies, states have broad leeway within this framework to both define acceptable work activity and to set work activity requirements. As of 2016, only two states used the federal 24-month guideline. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have work activity requirements that begin at application or within a very short time upon entering the program. Seventeen states also require that a potential participant begin the job search prior to or shortly after applying for benefits (Urban Institute, 2016).


States impose penalties for work requirement violations in the form of benefit reductions. If, for example, an adult in a benefits-receiving household fails to attend required job training workshops, the state may sanction a portion of the unit’s cash benefits. State sanction policies, as with many other aspects of TANF cash assistance, differ considerably. As of 2016, 24 states had initial sanction policies that docked the unit’s entire benefit or resulted in closure of the case for some period of time at the first infraction. Other states reduced the benefit by a set percentage or docked the adult portion of a household’s benefit upon the first violation. In six states, the most severe sanction resulted in permanent closure of the case, while in Kansas the most severe sanction was closure of the case for 10 years. In many other states the most severe penalty is closure of the case or docking the entire benefit, but the benefit is restored or the unit can reapply after complying with requirements or a specified period of time (generally, a number of months) has passed.

While sanctions are a tool to compel work-related behavior, studies differ on their actual relationship to work; some find that sanction is related to reduced work and earnings (Lee, Slack, & Lewis, 2004; Wu, Cancian, & Wallace, 2014) while others indicate that sanction increases work effort and income (Peck, 2007). Being sanctioned is associated with an increased risk of hardship, such as food insecurity or difficulty paying medical expenses (Kalil, Seefeldt, & Wang, 2002; Reichman, Teitler, & Curtis, 2005). Racially patterned use of sanctions is a further concern, though this relationship may be more subtle than simple disproportionate use of sanctions on clients of color. Case managers may, for instance, be more likely to sanction clients of color compared to white clients when primed by cues such as a previous sanction (Schram, Soss, Fording, & Houser, 2009).

Family Caps

One of the most controversial TANF rule options is the family cap, also the policy option that theoretically addresses PRWORA’s goal of reducing out-of-wedlock births directly. In a family cap state, no additional cash benefit or a reduced benefit is provided to a household unit for children conceived while receiving cash assistance. The underlying logic of the family cap holds that increases in benefits for additional children incentivize childbearing. Research generally shows no relationship between family caps and births, and one of the few studies that did show a relationship also suggested evaluation of family caps is complicated by unobserved differences between states (Dyer & Fairlie, 2004; Horvath-Rose, Peters, & Sabia, 2008; Joyce, Kaestner, Korenman, & Henshaw, 2004; Romero, Fortune-Greeley, Verea, & Salas-Lopez, 2007). In 2016, 15 states had a formal family cap policy and an additional 2 had fixed benefit levels regardless of family size—a de facto cap (Urban Institute, 2016). Family caps were once a central aspect of welfare debate, and early national welfare reform proposals included a nationwide family cap policy (Weaver, 2000). Left to individual states, however, 22 of them initially adopted caps and two adopted flat benefit rates (Urban Institute, 2016). Family caps have since been a policy area in which a number of states have gradually adopted less stringent approaches. Seven, including states as different as California and Oklahoma, abandoned their family caps in subsequent years (Urban Institute, 2016).


States have more than punitive and exclusionary tools available to limit cash assistance participation. Some states have adopted diversion programs, or short-term support programs intended to stave off participation in the formal TANF cash assistance program. Diversion benefits may take the form of one-time or extremely time-limited (four months or less, per federal rules) cash payments, vouchers, or services. A family receiving diversion services is typically barred from applying for formal TANF cash benefits for some period of time. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have formal diversion programs as of 2016 (Urban Institute, 2016). Surprisingly little is known about the participation in or the effects of diversion programs. The presence of a formal diversion program is associated with lower state cash assistance caseloads (Bentele & Nicoli, 2012). London (2003), in one of the few cross-state studies of diversion, finds that diverted clients differ systematically from clients not diverted, being more likely to be Hispanic, married, and to have both higher and lower degrees of education than other clients. Diverters may, then, be a mix of a low-need group willing to accept very short-term assistance to weather a brief spell of economic disadvantage and a high-need group not prepared to engage in required work activities.

Other Cash Assistance Program Rules

The rules described in the preceding subsections are some of the major features of state variation in cash assistance policy. Given the flexibility afforded by TANF’s structure, however, these are not the only areas in which state policy varies. For example, federal TANF funds may not be used to pay for benefits for immigrant families. States, however, have discretion to use their own funds to provide benefits for some categories of immigrants. States vary in the treatment of various types of income when determining eligibility, whether family members such as grandparents or stepparents may be included in the household unit, asset tests, and many other detailed aspects of implementation (Urban Institute, 2016). It is impossible to succinctly describe all of the ways in which states vary in cash assistance policy, and policy that might seem to be a relatively minor detail—such as the treatment of grandparent income when the grandparent is in the household—in the state’s overall cash assistance program may be quite important for a specific subset of clients or potential clients.

Street-Level Administration

Generally, TANF cash assistance clients are assigned a case manager to administer the client unit’s benefits, connect the client to available services, and monitor compliance with program requirements. Onerous intake procedures—an administrative hassle—act as an informal type of diversion, with some potential clients forgoing participation in cash assistance because of these transaction costs (Ridzi & London, 2006). Case managers, in addition to serving as the point-of-application for clients, have extensive discretion over the services to which a client is directed, whether diversion is offered, and in the imposition of sanctions. Welfare caseworkers under TANF are tasked with two seemingly opposed goals—providing families in need with temporary support and enforcing work behavior. Bureaucratic culture in the administering agencies can influence implementation; an emphasis on rules compliance, for instance, might increase the use of sanctions (Lens, 2008). Qualitative research on TANF administrators generally indicates that they have adopted the “work-first” philosophy of welfare reform. It also shows, however, that many are also overworked and stressed from high caseloads, their own administrative burdens, and the need to meet performance targets (Morgen et al., 2015; Ridzi, 2009). These pressures can lead workers to adopt strategies that increase efficiency but may be detrimental to client well-being, such as referring the client to service providers who quickly return paperwork rather than providers who offer the most appropriate services for client needs (Brodkin, 2011).

Though it had multiple expressed goals, a major focus of PRWORA was “welfare-to-work,” transitioning adults in disadvantaged families off cash assistance and into employment. While rules such as time limits, work requirements, and sanctions are one set of policy tools available to states, the states also implement a variety of services with the expressed purpose of assisting adult clients in successfully obtaining and maintaining employment. These supports include activities such as job training, assistance with job search, and subsidized jobs. Services are often provided by private third-party organizations under contract with a state, and providers range from small nonprofits to large corporations. States may also provide ancillary services, such as support for childcare and assistance with transportation, that facilitate employment. As mentioned previously, federal TANF policy explicitly limits the extent to which higher education is allowable as a work activity, with work supports primarily focused on rapid engagement with employment rather than long-term skill development.

TANF as Funding Stream

While TANF is generally treated as a time-limited cash assistance program with behavioral requirements and work supports, it is actually a funding mechanism. TANF funds, both from the block grant and MOE, may be used for many purposes. Cash assistance now accounts for only approximately one-quarter of TANF funds, a sharp contrast to 1998 when 58% of funds were directed toward traditional cash benefits (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018). The most well-known alternative use of TANF funds is for “welfare-to-work” services as discussed previously. As of 2016, even with the inclusion of work activities and work supports in a bundle of core TANF priorities, this only accounts for slightly more than half of all TANF expenditures (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018). Further, within that bundle, these services need not even be directed toward cash assistance beneficiaries; childcare expenditures, for instance, may be for childcare specifically for cash benefit recipients or it may be that TANF is used as one source of funding for a broader program roughly aligned with PRWORA’s four goals. Alternative activities range from different forms of cash assistance such as refundable tax credits for low-income workers to marriage promotion to support of the state child welfare system.


Welfare as federal cash assistance to low-income families in the United States has changed greatly since it was first manifested as Aid to Dependent Children in the Social Security Act of 1935. Once a major component of the U.S. social safety net, its current iteration, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is much reduced from its genesis in the 1996 welfare reform law. Even if its reach is limited, it remains important for social workers to understand its history, its structure, and the circumstances of its participants. Compared to AFDC, TANF is often heralded as a success. By some criteria, it is—cash assistance caseloads under TANF plummeted and have generally remained low, and single-mother employment did increase in the initial years of reform. Evaluation by other criteria, however, brings pause, and research evidence suggests that some families have been left behind as cash assistance has declined and the welfare system for low-income families focuses increasingly on rewarding participation in the low-wage labor market.

Further Reading

Administration for Children and Families: The division of the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for administering TANF and several other federal social welfare programs. Provides extensive data and numerous reports on TANF implementation.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Policy analysis organization offering reports and data on TANF implementation, administration, and outcomes, both nationally and at the state

Congressional Research Service Domestic Social Policy Division: Provides detailed descriptive reports on the functioning of U.S. social welfare programs, including TANF.

Employment Strategies for Low-Income Adults Evidence Review: Website, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, organizes reports from evaluations of many employment-oriented services for low-income individuals, including evaluations conducted under AFDC and TANF.

Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse: Project of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families that organizes numerous datasets related to economic well-being and economic policy. Some datasets are directly associated with TANF, while others focus on related topics such as poverty and employment.

Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality: Presents timely research on poverty and anti-poverty policy, including but not limited to TANF. Also publishes Pathways magazine, a publication featuring articles by poverty and social policy scholars accessible for a broad audience.

Urban Institute: Policy analysis and evaluation organization that examines a range of social policy areas including TANF and related policies. Also manages the Welfare Rules Database cataloging detailed state-by-state TANF cash assistance rules.


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