More About Liz Schott

Liz Schott

Schott currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center's Welfare Reform and Income Support Division.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

TANF Shows Dangers of Block-Granting Safety Net Programs

April 9, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Proponents of block-granting key safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP, as the House budget plan would do, often cite Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as a model.  But, as our new paper explains, a close look at how states have used TANF’s funds since its creation under the 1996 welfare law provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of block-granting these programs and giving states extensive flexibility on using the funds.  The cash assistance safety net for the nation’s poorest families with children has weakened significantly under the TANF block grant.

Beginning in TANF’s early years, when the economy was strong, shrinking cash assistance caseloads freed up federal and state funds that had gone to poor families in the form of benefits.  States used the flexibility of the block grant to redirect those funds.

Some of the freed-up funds initially went to child care and welfare-to-work programs to further welfare reform efforts.  But over time, states redirected much of their state and federal TANF funds to other purposes, in some cases to replace state spending on other priorities.  And when need increased during the Great Recession, states often did not direct the funds back to core welfare reform services and instead made cuts in basic assistance, child care, and work programs.

Our examination of state spending data for 2013 found:

  • The share of state and federal TANF spending used for basic assistance (cash welfare grants) has fallen significantly. At TANF’s onset, 70 percent of combined federal and state TANF funds went for basic assistance for poor families.  By 2013, that figure had plummeted to 28 percent.
  • States spend only about a quarter of their state and federal TANF dollars on child care and work activities combined. A key justification for block-granting TANF was to give states flexibility to move funding from cash assistance to work-related activities and/or supports (such as child care subsidies).  States raised spending in these areas in TANF’s early years but didn’t sustain those modest increases.
  • Core welfare reform activities thus represent roughly half of state and federal TANF spending. Child care, work activities, and basic assistance combined totaled 51 percent of federal and state TANF spending nationally in 2013 (see graph).
  • States use a large and growing share of state and federal TANF funds that formerly helped poor families meet basic needs for other state services. In some cases, states have used TANF funds to expand programs, such as state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITCs) or pre-K, or to cover the growing costs of existing services, such as child welfare.  In other cases, they have used TANF funds to replace existing state funds, thereby freeing those state funds for purposes unrelated to a safety net or work opportunities for low-income families.


Kansas Bill Will Increase Burdens on TANF Families

April 8, 2015 at 3:27 pm

Making ends meet on the low benefits that states provide to families through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is hard enough.  Kansas policymakers just made it even harder.

The state’s legislature last week passed a bill, which Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign, that imposes some of the country’s most severe — and short-sighted — limits on TANF benefit use.  Among its new rules, TANF recipients will be limited to withdrawing only $25 a day from an ATM.  Like most states, Kansas provides TANF cash assistance through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that families use to access benefits at an ATM machine or use for a store purchase.

Limiting withdrawals to $25 a day will make it harder for many recipients to make their rent and utility payments, as they often use cash to pay their bills and now could have to visit an ATM multiple times just to pull the funds together.  Worse still, it will actually take money out of their pockets, because each transaction costs money — $1 per transaction plus any additional fees that the ATM may charge (which averaged almost $3.00 last year).  That amounts to almost a 20 percent tax on every transaction.  Kansas is the first state to impose this type of restriction.

The bill also prohibits out-of-state Electronic Benefit Transactions of TANF benefits, even though the nearest or cheapest places to shop may be across the state line, such as in Kansas City, Missouri.  Only one other state — Minnesota — limits the use of TANF benefits out of state, and that law explicitly allows use in neighboring states.

The bill also codifies a number of harmful TANF changes that the Brownback Administration made over the last few years that have cut the state’s TANF caseload in half.  And it makes new changes that will likely reduce the number of participants in Kansas even further without necessarily connecting them to work; for example, it shortens time limits to 36 months, with limited extensions, and no extensions for any reason beyond 48 months.

The Kansas bill is yet another example of the risk that comes with further expanding states’ already considerable responsibility for assisting the poor, such as by block-granting programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps) as the budget plan that the House recently approved would do.  For TANF recipients in Kansas, this risk comes with no reward.

Effective Home Visiting Programs for High-Risk Families in Jeopardy Unless Congress Acts

March 10, 2014 at 3:12 pm

A federal-state partnership that supports family- and child-related home visiting programs in every state is slated to expire October 1, threatening a host of programs that are effective at strengthening high-risk families and saving money over the long run, according to a paper we issued today with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) targets high-risk families who are most likely to benefit from intensive home visiting services, through which trained professionals (often nurses, social workers, or parent educators) help parents acquire the skills to promote their children’s development.  MIECHV provides the federal funds, while states and localities implement the programs.  Congress provided $400 million for MIECHV this year.

When Congress created MIECHV in 2010, it authorized and funded the program for five years (fiscal years 2010 through 2014).  If Congress doesn’t extend MIECHV by September 30, when fiscal year 2014 ends, no new federal funds will be available.

Research shows that home visiting programs promote children’s health and development and improve parenting skills while cutting the number of children in the social welfare, mental health, and juvenile corrections systems, with considerable cost savings for states.  

MIECHV funds have spurred important innovations.  For example, Iowa expanded home visiting to 15 at-risk, underserved communities and is taking steps to improve program quality and coordination, such as creating a statewide data collection system and requiring state certification for all home visiting and family support practitioners.   

Failure to extend MIECHV would have unfortunate consequences for communities in every state.  Fewer families in at-risk communities would be served, and states may have to end efforts to improve data collection and assessment and strengthen coordination across programs.  Moreover, states — and the nation — would lose the opportunity to build the evidence base for these effective programs and expand them.

Click here to read the full paper.

Next Week’s SNAP Cut Will Worsen Struggles for Many TANF Families

October 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm

The cash assistance benefits that some poor families receive through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are already low, as states have allowed inflation to erode their value over time.  Now, other support that many of these same families receive is poised to fall, too, when a temporary increase in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) benefits ends next week.

As we explain in our updated analysis of state TANF programs, TANF’s benefits are worth at least 20 percent less than they were in 1996 in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation.  In every state, a family of three with no other cash income other than TANF falls below 50 percent of the federal poverty line.

Many TANF families — about 81 percent — receive SNAP benefits, which provide them with critical nutrition support.  But even the combination of the two programs doesn’t lift these families above the poverty line (see chart).

The coming SNAP cut will make it even harder for these families to meet their basic needs.  The 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost to SNAP benefits, which will end on November 1, will cut benefits for every SNAP household.  For a family of three, the cut will be $29 a month — or $319 over the remaining 11 months of the fiscal year.

That cut will more than wipe out even the small TANF benefit gains that seven states have already implemented this year.  (Maryland is implementing a TANF increase of $48 for a family of three as of November 1.)  These are serious losses, especially in light of the already very low basic SNAP — and TANF — benefits.

Purchasing Power of TANF Benefits Fell Further in 2012

March 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Cash assistance for the nation’s poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2012, we detail in our annual update of state benefit levels under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Most states left their benefit levels unchanged last year, so benefits continued to erode by inflation.

In 37 states, and after adjusting for inflation, benefits are now at least 20 percent below their levels of 1996 — the year policymakers created TANF.

For all states, as of July 1, 2012, benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were below half of the federal poverty line, measured as a share of the Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for 2012 (see map).  Benefits were below 30 percent of the poverty line in the majority of states.

On the other hand, no states cut benefit levels in 2012, and a few took the opportunity to increase the benefit level or to follow through on past commitments to modestly raise benefits or adjust them for inflation.  TANF benefits increased, in nominal dollars, in New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

TANF provides a safety net to relatively few poor families:  in 2011, just 27 families received TANF benefits for every 100 poor families, down from 68 families receiving TANF for every 100 in poverty in 1996.  But for the families that participate in the program, it often is their only source of support and without it, they would have no cash income to meet their basic needs.

It’s time for states to halt the erosion of TANF benefits and slowly regain some of the purchasing power that they’ve lost over the past 16 years.

Click here to read the full paper.