The Center's work on 'Trends' 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.

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.