The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is America’s largest cash assistance program for low-income families. It was enacted in 1996 to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program created in 1935. TANF provides block grants to states that use the funds to pay for their welfare programs. The TANF budget, originally set at $16.5 billion, has not been adjusted for inflation, which means its real value has fallen by 40 percent since 1996. States are allowed to allocate TANF funds among different services such as basic income, work support, education, and childcare. The TANF has four aims: (1) helping low-income families care for children at home, (2) promoting training and education to help families get off welfare, (3) preventing “out-of-wedlock” pregnancies. and (4) encouraging two-parent families.
TANF was designed to reach fewer families than AFDC. In 1979, 82% of poor families with children received AFDC benefits. In 1996, 68% of eligible families received TANF benefits. States can set their own eligibility requirements for TANF services, further reducing access. In 2019, only 23% of eligible families received support. This figure illustrates the negative trend:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says work requirements have led to 2 million Americans losing their benefits since 1997. Work requirements and federal regulations mean TANF programs do not provide enough educational and training assistance. The 1996 federal law allows 12 categories of work activities to be accepted in order to qualify for TANF benefit. The law limits activities such as job searching to qualify for full assistance. Furthermore, education and training can only be accepted as work activities if it is done along with 20 hours of work from one of the 12 listed categories in the 1996 law.
Another federal requirement, time limit, prohibits states from giving benefits for longer than 60 months to families with an adult recipient, making TANF an inadequate, unreliable safety net for low-income families.
Bottom Line: TANF’s strict requirements prevent many low-income families with children from receiving help.
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