Fixing Some of TANF’s Failures

June 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm

All three witnesses at a hearing yesterday on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families agreed that TANF has failed in two important respects.  First, it has not adequately prepared program participants for long-term employment success.  Second, it did not respond adequately to increased need during the recession.

Congress will not likely reauthorize TANF before its most recent extension expires on September 30, 2012.  Instead, Congress will likely extend the program temporarily again before considering full reauthorization next year.

In the meantime, Congress could make several changes that would improve the program in the short term and help to set the stage for next year’s deliberations.

I would recommend four changes:

  • Allow states to measure employment outcomes instead of participation in work activities.  As I pointed out in my testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee a few weeks ago, the TANF Work Participation Rate (WPR) is a failed measure of state performance.  States that achieve the highest WPR can do so because they serve very few families in need – leaving many of the most vulnerable with nowhere to turn for employment assistance.  Although there is widespread support for measuring employment outcomes instead of participation in work activities, there is not a consensus on a new measure.  Thus, the best path forward would be to allow states to propose and report on alternative measures with the requirement that they focus on outcomes.
  • Give states expanded and more flexible options for implementing work requirements. TANF agencies today face a very different task than they did 15 years ago.  Never-married mothers with a high school education or less are just as likely to work as single women without kids – and more likely than married women with kids.  TANF recipients who are not employed often face significant labor market barriers and are competing for jobs with individuals who have more education and labor market experience.  TANF agencies could do more to help recipients achieve long-term employment success if they could provide assistance based on individual needs and circumstances rather than on a narrowly defined set of options that are inconsistent with the characteristics of TANF’s caseload and the current economic reality.
  • Fix the Contingency Fund. When Congress created TANF, it recognized that states would need more assistance during hard economic times.  However, the TANF Contingency Fund that it created for this purpose has not worked as intended.  With high unemployment rates expected to continue for some time, now is the time to redesign the Contingency Fund.  A redesign should ensure that states with the greatest need can access the Fund and restrict the funds to activities that directly address economic hardship caused by a weak economy, such as subsidized employment.

  • Fund the Supplemental Grants. Congress should include funding for the Supplemental Grants in its TANF extension.  The loss of the Supplemental Grants dealt an especially harsh blow to the 17 states that had received them since 1996, reducing their overall federal TANF funding by as much as 10 percent.  The states that received this funding are poorer states with substantial numbers of families living in poverty and deep poverty.  They cannot be expected to provide the same level of assistance with less funding, especially when state budgets have been hard hit by the economic downturn.
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More About LaDonna Pavetti

LaDonna Pavetti

Dr. LaDonna Pavetti is the Vice President for Family Income Support Division at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. Jeff Butler #

    TANF fails in so many ways. It is shamefully ineffective at the goals of: “assisting needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes.”
    “reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage”
    “encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families”

    First, payments are so far below the established levels of need, even with food stamps and other benefits, that financial and relationship stability are all but impossible. Deprivation and want are so severe after assistance that there is no acceptable standard of care.
    Dependency is fostered by the inadequacy of assistance. The level of assistance promotes dependency.
    Assistance below the standard of need discourages family formation and maintenance.

    TANF is implemented in such a way as to work against its stated goals. It’s like trying to heat your house by throwing water on the fire and then complaining that the fire is broken.

    Many families at 1 or 2 income quintiles higher can’t even achieve self sufficiency.

    Welfare to work is not appropriate for all families with children. Those that are headed by an elderly or disabled adult should received TANF for the children. The adult’s old age assistance or disability income must be prohibited from being counted available to the children.

    The significant source of failure of TANF belongs to Congress, who doesn’t want to further the goals of the program. The real goal is to withhold spending on poor children.

  2. Richard #

    It all goes back to the same issue most people I dealt with in the program have a very hard time speaking ENGLISH. We need to force people to sit in class 25 hours a week and learn to read,write and speak English in exchange for their checks.

    It would cost no money…and would do a lot of good in preparing them for the workplace. Have them make a FB page in English and when their swearing Ebonics friends post they have to answer back in English, or they get docked.

    Guts LaDonna, just guts to find a real solution

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