Policy Brief: TANF Reaching Few Poor Families

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, created by the 1996 welfare law, is designed to provide a temporary safety net to poor families — primarily those with no other means to meet basic needs — but its reach has shrunk considerably over time.[1] In 2017, for every 100 families in poverty, only 23 received cash assistance from TANF, down from 68 families when TANF was first enacted. This “TANF-to-poverty ratio” (TPR) reached its lowest point in 2014 and has remained there. (See Figure 1.)

States’ experience with TANF provides strong evidence that punitive work requirements and block granting exacerbate, rather than reduce, deep poverty (that is, incomes below half of the poverty line) and should not be extended to other programs, as some policymakers have proposed.

  • TANF provides a temporary safety net to few poor families and its reach continues to shrink, both nationally and in nearly every state. Black families are disproportionately likely to live in the group of states that have the lowest TPRs, compared to white families; as a result, black families nationally are less likely than white families to have access to TANF assistance when they fall into crisis.
  • State TANF caseloads have fallen in recent years due both to declines in the need for assistance and to state policy changes that make the program less accessible. The biggest caseload declines, however, have occurred in states with major policy changes.
  • TANF lifts far fewer families out of deep poverty than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and has put poor children at risk of much greater hardship, with the potential for long-term negative consequences.

– Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

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