Temporary Assistance Opportunity: TANF

Portrait of poor sad small girl with parents eating indoors at home, poverty concept

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is a federal-state funded grant created to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency through financial support. This program can provide cash, healthcare, nutrition and employment services to those who qualify for it. TANF is the latest version of the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC) program, which was the primary means-tested welfare program of the United States from 1935 until the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 replaced it with the modern TANF. Since its creation, the TANF program has been a highly debated and contested policy, especially as programs are always riddled with issues concerning eligibility, benefits, and fraud. This essay will explore the policy background of the TANF program, its needs, findings surrounding the success of the program and its subsequent reforms, implications for future use and its final thoughts.

Background of TANF

The initial Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC) program was implemented in the wake of The Great Depression in response to the dramatic job losses and eroding social safety net. It was the first program to provide cash assistance to qualifying households on the basis of family structures, particularly those families with dependent children in need. ADC was an open-ended grant, meaning that it had no time limit nor had any eligibility requirements, except for the fact that families had to be below the poverty line. This lack of eligibility requirements, however, led to a disproportionate number of the recipients being high school dropouts, single mothers, and lower-income families.

By the 1990s, this increasingly high rate of ADC reliance had made it politically and economically untenable, leading to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. This act replaced ADC with the current TANF program, which was designed to be much more restrictive, locking families into a 5-year maximum time limit on any federal welfare benefits and implementing strict work requirements as well as an “asset test” to ensure only truly needy households received assistance. This move towards a more structured and austere program, however, has been a highly controversial one, with numerous claims of the program being overly punitive and harsh to already struggling families while failing to address their employment needs.

Needs and Findings

Despite the debate surrounding the TANF program, it has proved to be surprisingly effective in helping those in need and has proven to increase labor force participation among recipients. In 2017 alone, the program provided assistance to nearly 1.7 million families and almost 5 million individuals, with additional assistance being provided to military families, disabled individuals, and those with drug-related problems.

Studies have also found that TANF plays a very important role in helping families out of poverty. In a study conducted by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, it was found that over two-thirds of families that received assistance from the program were able to escape poverty within 2 years of receiving assistance. This finding was further supported by an even more recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which found that TANF was more successful than work-first approaches at helping families move out of poverty and increase their income levels.

This finding is especially important given the restrictive nature of the program, which is heavily centered on the goal of getting employment and making it more burdensome for recipients to use assistance than to find it. This is why there has been a dramatic shift in the past few years towards more Job-Centered approaches, where TANF resources are used for education and job training programs, especially for not only low-skill and low-wage individuals, but also for those who are at higher risk of becoming long-term unemployed.

Reforms and Implications

Despite TANF’s success, there’s still much that needs to be done to make the program better and more successful. Most notably, many states are still not meeting the federal standards, meaning that many individuals who are in need are not receiving the assistance they should. On top of that, many states have also transferred some of their TANF funds to programs outside of welfare, such as to post-secondary education, social services, and public health care initiatives. This “mission drift” can be seen as a good thing in many cases, as it allows states to be more flexible in addressing the needs of those receiving assistance.

In terms of future use, it is recommended that more resources be devoted to transitioning families out of poverty, as well as providing job-focused education and training programs. This could include programs ensuring that parents have access to childcare and transportation so that they can work and programs that prioritize providing long-term job support for families seeking employment. It is also important that states continue to focus on preventing fraud and misuse of funds, as this has been a major problem for the program in the past.

Final Thought

Although the TANF program still has some issues with fraud and misuse, overall it has been successful in helping those in need. Its strict eligibility requirements and work requirements have made it one of the most successful federal assistance programs for low-income individuals and families in the United States. As such, it is important that states continue to properly monitor their TANF funds and continue to emphasize job-centered approaches to helping low-income individuals and families move up the economic ladder. The TANF system is an essential part of many family’s economic security, and it is important that it is continued to be funded in order to ensure the wellbeing of those in need.