The Center's work on 'Trends' 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’s Rhetoric Doesn’t Match His Proposal’s Reality

July 24, 2014 at 4:55 pm

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan left the impression today 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.

Chairman Ryan spoke eloquently this morning about “Andrea,” a single mother who needs income assistance in the near term, help finding a job, assistance so she can go to college, and help paying for child care for her two young children while she works and attends school so she can reach her dream of becoming a teacher and climb into the middle class.  He implied that his Opportunity Grant would deliver the package of supports she needs to succeed.

In fact, under Chairman Ryan’s plan, neither Andrea nor anyone else would be guaranteed any assistance.  This means that Andrea could apply for services and be told that she cannot get any help.  Chairman Ryan doesn’t acknowledge that scenario.

To be sure, many kinds of assistance already are limited so that not everyone who’s eligible for assistance gets it — with one important exception.  Today, all eligible poor households can get help to buy groceries through SNAP (formerly food stamps), a form of income assistance that not only helps those households put food on the table but can free up resources so that families — not caseworkers — can decide how to direct their limited incomes.  Chairman Ryan’s plan would no longer guarantee that basic safety net.

And, nothing in Chairman Ryan’s proposal would make it more likely that families in Andrea’s situation would receive that full package of supports unless other needy individuals and families receive significantly less help.  Indeed, states already have flexibility to use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, which provides basic income assistance to poor families with children) to put together precisely this package of benefits.  But TANF’s flexibility does not trump its limited resources, and that’s why many single mothers like Andrea can’t get the help they need to make ends meet, find work, go to school, and ensure that their children are safe and well cared for while they juggle work and school.

Today, just 25 of every 100 poor families receive TANF assistance, only 1 in 7 low-income children who qualify for help paying for child care receives it; and just 1 in 4 low-income households that qualify for help paying for housing get it.

Also of note, the service provider structure that Ryan envisions almost surely would require more staff and, thus, would generate higher administrative costs, leaving less funding for assistance and services.

In short, the only way that Chairman Ryan’s plan can provide more assistance, targeted or not, to families like Andrea’s is if some poor households receive significantly less help, with cuts likely coming in help to pay for food and housing — the two largest programs that Ryan would consolidate under the Opportunity Grant.

The case of “Steven,” whom Ryan also highlights, makes the point as well.  A single 19-year-old non-custodial father, Steven is jobless and needs help to get off drugs.  Ryan’s proposal indicates that the Opportunity Grant would help him get drug treatment, move him into transitional housing (a form of subsidized housing), and get him help with attending parenting classes, finding work, and pursuing further education.

These are all needed services, and limited funding keeps many people, particularly adults not living with children and who have the same needs as Steven, from obtaining that help.  But the Opportunity Grant structure would not provide additional resources (and as my colleague Robert Greenstein points out, could well provide fewer resources), so the only way to provide this richer set of supports for Steven is to cut the help that other families receive.

Chairman Ryan skirts this fundamental math.  Consolidating funding streams into a single “opportunity” grant allows him to say that individuals like Andrea and Steven will get a better-targeted suite of supports without saying which families will get less help and how that will affect them.

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.

Immigration Bill’s “Back Taxes” Amendment Much Harder to Implement than Senator Hatch Suggests

June 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm

As our new report explains, some senators are proposing amendments to the immigration bill that would make its long and difficult path to citizenship far more difficult — in some cases undermining the fundamental goal of enabling undocumented workers to legalize their status.

One such proposal, from Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), would require immigrants seeking legal status to prove they have paid all of their taxes since they entered the country before adjusting to a legal status.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Senator Hatch claimed that the IRS is well-positioned to determine such individuals’ tax liability, even when workers lack earnings and tax records:

The IRS is well experienced at estimating the tax liabilities for people who, for whatever reason, lack the records that normally support a tax return. . . .  Using bank records, credit card statements, housing records, and other evidence of an individual’s lifestyle, the IRS is able to construct returns and estimate tax liabilities for nonfilers who are U.S. citizens and resident aliens.  The same process can be used for immigrants looking to certify they no longer owe any Federal taxes.  That is not a tough thing to do…

But the IRS does not routinely try to use such records to guesstimate people’s incomes.  These are extreme methods, which it resorts to in only a very small number of cases each year.

Senator Hatch is essentially arguing that it would be workable — and a good use of taxpayer money — to require the IRS to conduct extensive field audits of very large numbers of undocumented immigrants seeking legal status.

The audits would be very complicated in many cases; many of these workers’ past employers will be difficult to locate, will not have records for cash transactions made years ago, and (for obvious reasons) may be reluctant to cooperate.  Moreover, many of these immigrants likely will not have bank records or credit cards, will have moved many times, and will have been working in the United States for many years or even decades, so reconstructing their records for this entire period could prove extremely difficult.

The IRS’s experience in estimating a family’s income based on its “lifestyle” is largely restricted to a very small number of generally high-income people and small businesses where there is a large disconnect between their reported income and the person’s lifestyle or the business’s spending and the IRS has reason to believe large-scale tax evasion may have occurred.  The IRS has never used this method for large numbers of low-income workers.

Given that an estimated 11 million people are eligible to legalize under the bill, the increased workload for the IRS would be tremendous.  Of the 187 million individual and business tax returns filed in 2011, the IRS examined just 1.7 million — fewer than 1 percent.  Moreover, over 70 percent of these audits were conducted by mail (where information is requested and provided by mail) and were not the complex, intensive audits that Senator Hatch envisions.

Based on the total cost of current IRS enforcement efforts and the number of returns examined each year, each field examination would clearly cost thousands of dollars.  This means that the cost of conducting vast numbers of complicated audits, as Senator Hatch evidently envisions, would run into the billions.

Senator Hatch has not proposed any new funding for the IRS to conduct such audits or indicated that large numbers of new IRS staff would be hired.  If the IRS tried to implement his proposal, it would have to divert a very large portion of its total enforcement resources, probably for a number of years, from enforcement activities that yield a much higher return for the Treasury to auditing millions of legalizing workers, most of whom have modest incomes.

In 2012, the IRS conducted 31,700 field audits of corporations, leading to a total of $20 billion in recommended additional tax assessments — an average of more than $600,000 per review.  When both individual and business field audits are considered, the average tax assessment is close to $60,000.  Diverting IRS resources away from these high-return audits to try to reconstruct earnings records from modest-earning immigrants almost surely would result in a net loss of revenues to the Treasury, not the gain that Senator Hatch suggests.

More realistically, the IRS would never be able to conduct the required audits, so the process of legalizing undocumented workers would grind to a halt for many — leaving the basic goal of the legislation in tatters.  Undocumented workers would remain undocumented and the Treasury would collect less in taxes going forward than if these workers were allowed to come out of the shadows.

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.