The Center's work on 'Welfare Reform / TANF' Issues


A State-by-State Look at TANF

November 19, 2014 at 4:23 pm

This interactive map provides a wealth of information on state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs, which — as CBPP analyses have documented — have weakened significantly as a safety net since TANF’s creation in the 1996 welfare law.

Not only does TANF reach many fewer needy families than it used to, but TANF benefits have lost a fifth of their value since 1996 in most states and leave families far below the poverty line, making it extremely difficult for them to meet basic needs.

The map gives state-specific data on these issues (click on one of the three gray boxes at the top to choose which version of the map to display) and links to fact sheets with more details on each state’s caseload and spending.

State Welfare Benefits Continue Shrinking

October 31, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits for the nation’s poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2014 and are now at least 20 percent below their inflation-adjusted 1996 levels in 38 states, our new report explains.  As the country moves past the economic downturn and state revenues recover, states should halt the erosion of TANF benefits and begin restoring the purchasing power lost since TANF’s creation in 1996.

While eight states raised benefits between July 2013 (the start of fiscal year 2014 in most states) and July 2014, the remaining states didn’t, allowing inflation to continue to erode the benefits’ value.  As of July 2014:

  • The purchasing power of benefits for 99 percent of recipients nationally was below 1996 levels, after adjusting for inflation.
  • In every state, TANF benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were below 50 percent of the poverty line.  Most states’ benefits were below 30 percent of the poverty line.  (See interactive map below.)
  • In every state, benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were below the Fair Market Rent (the federal government’s estimate of the rent and utility costs of modest housing) for a two-bedroom apartment.  In 29 states, they covered less than half of the Fair Market Rent.
  • In every state except Alaska, the combination of SNAP (formerly food stamps) and TANF benefits for families receiving both falls below 75 percent of the poverty line.

Of the eight states that raised benefits in the past year (California, Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming), all but California did so through annual or periodic adjustments that limit erosion due to inflation.  Other states should consider adopting this approach — as well as benefit increases to make up at least some of the lost ground since 1996.

TANF recipients have a limited time on benefits, and most must participate in work or work-preparation activities.  During this time-limited, work-focused window, TANF benefits need to better enable families to meet basic needs so they can focus on finding work and/or increasing their skills in order to leave welfare.

Data Show TANF Didn’t Respond Adequately to Need During Recession, Contrary to New Study’s Claims

September 10, 2014 at 2:56 pm

A recent study from researchers at the Brookings Institution and the University of Nevada concludes that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program responded to increased need during the Great Recession in the majority of states as a good safety net program would.  This conclusion, however, is based on seriously flawed analysis, as we explain in a new paper.

A number of assertions made by the authors — Ron Haskins and Kimberly Howard of the Brookings Institution and Vicky Albert of the University of Nevada — wilt under scrutiny.  Consider, for example, one such claim: that TANF responded to a greater degree in the 2000 and 2007 recessions than the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC), TANF’s predecessor, did in previous recessions.  But this claim rests on inappropriate use of data.

The authors arrive at this conclusion by averaging the percentage increase (or decrease) in the AFDC “caseload” (families who received benefits) during the 1980, 1981, and 1990 recessions and comparing that to the average percentage change in the TANF caseload during the 2000 and 2007 recessions.  This metric produces highly skewed results, however.

The AFDC caseload at the start of all three of the early recessions was much larger than the TANF caseload at the start of the 2000 and 2007 recessions, making a percentage-change comparison highly misleading.  From the beginning to the end of the 1990 recession, the number of unemployed individuals rose by 1.7 million, while the AFDC caseload increased by 350,000 families.  From the beginning to the end of the 2007 recession, the number of unemployed individuals rose by 7 million, while the TANF caseload increased by just 124,000 families.

Put another way, during the 1990 recession, the AFDC caseload increased by 21 families for every 100 additional unemployed individuals, while the comparable figure for the TANF caseload during the 2007 recession was an increase of only two families for every additional 100 unemployed individuals (see chart).

We’ve monitored TANF carefully since the start of the recession and have a far less sanguine assessment of the program’s responsiveness to the recent recession than Haskins, Howard, and Albert do.  We conclude that the program fell well short of how we would expect such a basic safety net program to respond during tough economic times.

In spite of its shortcomings, TANF is often held up as a model for altering other safety net programs.  The Haskins, Howard, and Albert study is likely to be cited as evidence that TANF performs fine in recessions, so other programs (such as SNAP) can be changed to a similar block-grant structure.  But that would be a highly inappropriate conclusion based on flawed use of data.

Click here to read our full paper.

TANF at 18: A Weakened Role and Not a Model for Safety Net Reform

August 22, 2014 at 10:08 am

Eighteen years ago today, President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 — commonly known as “welfare reform.”  A key component was its creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Since then, TANF has played a shrinking role as a safety net for poor families (see chart), serving a small share of poor families and lifting many fewer families out of “deep poverty” (with incomes below half the poverty line) than AFDC did, as we explain and illustrate in our revised chart book.

A close look at TANF’s track record makes it clear that the program needs retooling to ensure that a strong safety net and sufficient employment assistance is available when people need them most.

Yet some policymakers claim that welfare reform was such an extraordinary success that we should use it as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  But the facts don’t make that case.  For example, in TANF’s 18-year history, never-married mothers with a high school education or less made substantial gains in employment in only the first four years — largely due to the roaring economy of the late 1990s — and those gains have almost entirely eroded in the subsequent 14.  It is wishful thinking to assume that we could see the same employment gains we saw in TANF’s early years in today’s sluggish labor market.

The safety net (other than TANF) plays an extremely important role in reducing poverty and deep poverty in this country — a role that should be maintained.  The evidence from TANF suggests that applying TANF-like reforms to other safety net programs would likely cause more families to join the ranks of the deeply poor and cause some who are already deeply poor to become even poorer.

TANF reform is long overdue.  We should fix its problems before embarking on reforms that will repeat its failures.

Click here for the full chart book.

Ryan Roundup: What You Need to Know About Chairman Ryan’s Poverty Proposal

July 25, 2014 at 4:42 pm

We’ve compiled CBPP’s analyses and blog posts on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty proposal.  We’ll update this roundup as we issue additional analyses.

  • Blog Post: Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 2
    August 5, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to consolidate 11 safety net and related programs, including the four largest federal rental assistance programs, into a single block grant to states risks significant funding cuts to housing assistance that helps 4.7 million low-income families.  The combination of those cuts, and the possible elimination under Ryan’s plan of program rules that ensure housing stability and affordable rents, could undercut rental assistance programs’ effectiveness and put substantial numbers of vulnerable families at risk for homelessness.
  • Blog Post: Why the Ryan Plan Should Worry Those Who Are Concerned About the Affordable Housing Crisis, Part 1
    July 31, 2014
    A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s poverty plan is the proposal to consolidate 11 safety net programs — including four housing assistance programs — into a single, flexible block grant to states.  Among its downsides, this proposal threatens to lead to reductions in funding that provides housing assistance to millions of low-income families and individuals.
  • Blog Post: What Difference Would Ryan’s EITC Expansion Make for Childless Workers?
    July 29, 2014
    We’ve explained that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless adults, including non-custodial parents, would encourage work and reduce poverty.  Our interactive chart allows you to compare the EITC that childless workers at different income levels would earn under current law and under the Ryan expansion, which mirrors a proposal from President Obama.
  • Blog Post: Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant” Would Likely Force Cuts in Food and Housing Assistance
    July 29, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan maintains that consolidating 11 safety-net and related programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” would give states the flexibility to provide specialized services to low-income people.  But providing these additional services would require cutting assistance funded through the Opportunity Grant to other needy people.  And because SNAP (formerly food stamps) and housing assistance together make up more than 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant, the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty — particularly deep poverty.
  • Blog Post: History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts
    July 28, 2014
    Ryan says that the block grant would maintain the same overall funding as the current programs.  But even if one thought that current-law funding levels were adequate, they likely wouldn’t be sustained over time under the Ryan proposal:  history shows that block grants that consolidate a number of programs or may be used for a wide array of purposes typically shrink — often very substantially — over time.
  • Blog Post:  Why Ryan’s Proposed Work Requirements Are Cause for Concern
    July 25, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan predictably showcases the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  For example, states would have to impose work requirements on all recipients of assistance funded through the “Opportunity Grant” — the block grant that would replace 11 safety net and related programs — who are not classified as unable to work.  We have four key concerns about this proposal.
  • Blog Post:  Dean: SNAP Is a Successful, Influential Component of the Safety Net
    July 25, 2014
    SNAP is not only one of the most efficient and effective safety net programs, but it’s also helping improve other programs, CBPP’s Stacy Dean told a House Agriculture subcommittee.
  • Commentary:  Ryan “Opportunity Grant” Proposal Would Likely Increase Poverty and Shrink Resources for Poverty Programs Over Time
    July 24, 2014
    A centerpiece of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan would consolidate 11 safety-net and related programs — from food stamps to housing vouchers, child care, and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) — into a single block grant to states.  This new “Opportunity Grant” would operate initially in an unspecified number of states.  While some other elements of the Ryan poverty plan deserve serious consideration, such as those relating to the Earned Income Tax Credit and criminal justice reform, his “Opportunity Grant” would likely increase poverty and hardship, and is therefore ill-advised, for several reasons.
  • Blog Post:  Ryan Adds Momentum to Expanding EITC for Childless Workers
    July 24, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan highlighted the Earned Income Tax Credit as one of the most effective anti-poverty programs and joined growing bipartisan calls to expand it for childless adults (including non-custodial parents), the lone group that the federal tax system taxes into poverty.  We applaud this step, though we encourage him to reconsider some of his proposals to offset the cost — which would hit vulnerable families — and his opposition to a much-needed increase in the minimum wage.
  • Blog Post:  Ryan’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Match His Proposal’s Reality
    July 24, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan left the impression that his proposed Opportunity Grant will allow low-income individuals to get income assistance as well as help they may need to go to school, get off drugs, and succeed in the workplace.  That picture, however, doesn’t reflect the reality of his proposal.

We also issued several pieces ahead of Chairman Ryan’s announcement of his proposal:

  • Analysis:  Deep Poverty Among Children Worsened in Welfare Law’s First Decade
    July 23, 2014
    Since the mid-1990s, when policymakers made major changes in the public assistance system, the proportion of children living in poverty has declined, but the harshest extremes of child poverty have increased.  After correcting for the well-known underreporting of safety net benefits in the Census data, we estimate that the share of children in deep poverty — with family income below half of the poverty line — rose from 2.1 percent to 3.0 percent between 1995 and 2005.  The number of children in deep poverty climbed from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.Blog Post:  Fewer Poor Children Under Welfare Law, But More Very Poor Children
  • Blog Post: CLASP: State Experiences Show Safety Net Programs Don’t Need Massive Overhaul to Work Better
    July 23, 2014
    Olivia Golden of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) took a closer look at the experiences of six states to debunk common myths about the delivery of safety net programs. . . . Golden explained that the experiences of the six states involved in the Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative — a project coordinated by CBPP, CLASP, and the Urban Institute that is designing, testing, and implementing more effective, streamlined, and integrated approaches to delivering key supports for low-income working families — offer lessons for how to improve safety net programs.
  • Blog Post:  Why the 1996 Welfare Law Is Not a Model for Other Safety Net Programs
    July 22, 2014
    House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s upcoming poverty plan will likely showcase the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — a block grant with fixed federal funding but broad state flexibility — as a model for reforming other safety net programs.  A careful examination of the record, however, indicates that the 1996 law’s results were mixed and that if the goal is to reduce poverty, especially among the most disadvantaged families and children, there are serious downsides to embracing the 1996 law as a model.
  • Commentary:  Policymakers Often Overstate Marginal Tax Rates — and Understate Trade-Offs In Reducing Them
    July 22, 2014
    Some Washington policymakers are increasingly focused on whether government benefits for low- and moderate-income people create disincentives to work — in particular, when these benefits phase down as the earnings of beneficiaries rise.That phase-down rate is often called the “marginal tax rate” because it resembles a tax — benefits fall as earnings rise.  The relationship between marginal tax rates and disincentives to work is an important issue, one worthy of serious debate.  Some policymakers, however, often overstate the size of marginal tax rates and their impacts on work, and understate the trade-offs in trying to lower these rates.Blog Post:  Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Government Benefits