TANF Weakening as a Safety Net

March 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Many policymakers see the 1996 welfare law’s creation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as a major success and cite TANF’s structure — a block grant with fixed federal funding but broad state flexibility— as a model for other safety net programs.

But when we analyzed state-by-state data to examine how well states have maintained TANF’s role as a safety net, the results were sobering.  TANF now provides a safety net for relatively few poor families with children.

TANF Weakening as a Safety Net For Poor FamiliesIn 1996, TANF provided cash aid to 68 families for every 100 families with children living in poverty.  By 2010, this “TANF-to-poverty ratio” had plummeted to 27 (see first graph).

TANF-to-poverty ratios have fallen dramatically in all states since the mid-1990s (see second graph):

  • In 1994-95, almost half of the states had a ratio higher than 75.  In 2009-10, none did.
  • In 1994-95, no state had a ratio lower than 25.  In 2009-10, half of the states did.

TANF-to-poverty ratios fell so far not because the number of poor people fell but, instead, because TANF caseloads fell.  From 1994-95 to 2009-10, caseloads declined by at least 27 percent in every state and by over 50 percent in 36 states.  During that same period, the number of families with children in poverty rose by at least 10 percent in over half the states.  But TANF failed to respond to the increased need.

Georgia provides a striking example.  Between 1994-95 and 2009-10, Georgia’s TANF-to-poverty ratio dropped from 98 all the way to 9.  TANF caseloads fell by 85 percent even as the number of poor families rose by 92 percent.  Caseloads fell largely because of state policies designed to make it harder for families to get TANF and easier to remove families from the program.

TANF’s block grant structure contributed significantly to these problems, although TANF’s work requirements also played a big role.  For example, when TANF caseloads fell amidst the hot economy of the late 1990s, states took advantage of the flexibility that the block grant gave them to shift TANF funds to other purposes — in some cases replacing state dollars previously used for these purposes.  But when the need for cash assistance rose during recessions, states generally didn’t reclaim those dollars to aid the growing number of families needing help.

Also, the TANF requirement that states place a certain share of TANF families in work activities gives states an incentive to focus on helping only families with the best chance of finding jobs.  As a result, the families that most need help are often the families that states least want to serve — and states have adopted policies that keep many of them off the rolls.

When Congress renews TANF — which could occur in 2012 — it should address these and other problems to strengthen the program as a safety net for very poor families.

TANF's Role as a Safety Net Has Declined in Every State

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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 CBPP.org

1 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. Jeff Butler #

    The chart “TANF’s Role as a Safety Net” is an indictment of the failure of the 1996 welfare reform, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act – PWRORA – Public Law 104-193.
    According to HHS Administration for Children and Families:
    The Mission of TANF is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency.
    Goals: States receive a block grant to design and operate their programs to accomplish the purposes of TANF. These are:
    1. assisting needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
    2. reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
    3. preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies
    4. encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

    The sharp decline in the assistance rate of families living in poverty shows that TANF has failed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency, assist fewer families to care for children in their own homes, reduce dependency (other than dependency on TANF), provide the services to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies, or to provide the services to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
    In order to achieve its mission and fulfill its goals, TANF would have to increase the number of cases it serves living in poverty. One measure of success would be enrolling an increasing the rate of the number of families living in poverty. If TANF was effective, there would be a growing number of people escaping poverty.

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