The Center's work on 'State Policies' Issues


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

Simplifying the Child Care Eligibility “Maze”

December 17, 2013 at 11:58 am

An important way to help low-income working families meet their basic needs and improve their lives is to make sure they receive the work supports for which they qualify, such as health coverage, food assistance, and child care assistance.  A new report from the Urban Institute and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) explains how states can simplify their child care subsidy programs — which help cover low-income families’ child care costs so the parents can get and keep jobs — to better serve families.

The report is part of the foundation-funded initiative Work Support Strategies, through which CBPP, the Urban Institute, and CLASP work with selected states to streamline the delivery of health and human services to low-income working families.

The report outlines an approach in which eligible parents applying for child care assistance give their information once, are then connected not only to child care assistance but also other benefits for which they are eligible, and can keep the full package of benefits as long as they are eligible — all of it with minimal red tape.  That reduces burdens on low-income families and the state.

The report will be an important resource for states seeking to simplify and streamline their child care programs as well as facilitate connections between child care and other key work supports, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

For more general information on why it’s so vital to deliver work supports more efficiently, the improvements made in recent years, and the steps that states can take, see this CBPP report.

It’s Time to Bolster TANF

October 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Cash assistance benefits for the nation’s poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2013, we explain in our annual update of state benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Seven states increased TANF grant amounts last year — and encouragingly, no state cut benefits — but most kept family grant levels unchanged, allowing inflation to continue eroding the benefits’ value.

TANF is often the only source of support for participating families and, without it, they would have no cash income to meet their basic needs.  Yet, this critical safety net program supports fewer families — and its benefits are worth less — than ever before. Consider:

  • In 2012, just 25 of every 100 poor families received TANF benefits, down from 68 of every 100 in 1996, the year policymakers created TANF to replace the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
  • TANF benefit levels are at least 20 percent below their 1996 levels in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation.
  • As of July 1, 2013, every state’s benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were below 50 percent of the federal poverty line, measured by the Department of Health and Human Services 2013 poverty guidelines (see map).  Benefits were below 30 percent of the poverty line in most states.


A few of the states that increased TANF benefits in 2013 were following through on past commitments to modestly raise benefits or adjust them for inflation. Three states — Connecticut, Ohio, and Wyoming — increased TANF benefits through annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  Such an automatic mechanism, built into state law, is the best way to prevent the value of TANF benefits from falling and to keep them even with inflation.

These are promising steps, but still more states should consider similar policy changes.  It’s time for states to halt the erosion of TANF benefits and slowly restore some of the purchasing power the grants have lost over the past 17 years.

Click here for the full paper and 50-state data.

New Evidence That Subsidized Jobs Programs Work

September 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia used $1.3 billion from the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Emergency Fund to place more than 260,000 low-income adults and youth in temporary jobs in the private and public sectors during the Great Recession.  Now, from the Economic Mobility Corporation (EMC), there’s new evidence that these subsidized jobs programs did what they were supposed to do:  help disadvantaged individuals during hard economic times to boost their incomes and improve their chances of finding unsubsidized jobs when the subsidized jobs ended.

The EMC study shows that these programs helped businesses as well as job-seekers weather the worst of the recession.  It found:

  • Participation in subsidized employment programs led to significant increases in employment and earnings. Participants in four of the five programs covered by the study were much more likely to have an unsubsidized job in the year after working in a subsidized job than in the year before joining the program.  The findings from Florida are especially noteworthy because researchers could compare participants with applicants who were eligible for the program but didn’t receive a subsidized job.  There, participants earned an average of $4,000 more in the year after the program than in the year before it, compared to a $1,500 increase for people in the comparison group.
  • The programs were especially effective for the long-term unemployed. In Mississippi and Florida, average annual earnings of the long-term unemployed rose by about $7,000 after participating; in Los Angeles and Wisconsin, they rose by about $4,000.  In all four sites, earnings rose much more among the long-term unemployed than among people who had been unemployed for shorter periods.
  • Employers reported hiring more workers than they would have otherwise and workers with less experience than their usual hires. Two-thirds of the employers interviewed for the study said that they created new positions for subsidized workers.  Over half said they hired people with less work experience than their usual hires. 

  • Most participating employers reported multiple benefits from the program. These included expanding their workforces, serving more customers, and improving their productivity.     

We’ve called the TANF Emergency Fund, which expired three years ago, a “win-win-win” because of its benefits for unemployed people, businesses, and communities.  This new study provides hard evidence of the program’s accomplishments.  It’s not too late to build on that success.

This year, at least five states — Nebraska, Colorado, California, Minnesota, and Rhode Island —expanded state funding or provided new funding for subsidized employment for TANF recipients or other disadvantaged individuals.

Congress should follow their lead.  One place to start would be to redesign the TANF Contingency Fund as an employment fund that states could use to provide subsidized jobs or otherwise invest in evidence-based employment programs that significantly increase the job prospects of people receiving or eligible for TANF.  That would help redirect scarce resources to states with the greatest need for jobs and help create jobs for those whom the tepid recovery has left behind.