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Is TANF Functioning Well as Part of the Safety Net?

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced traditional “welfare” (Aid to Families with Dependant Children, AFDC) in 1996, is due for reauthorization by the end of 2010. Under the program, states, territories and tribes receive fixed block grant funds for services, benefits and administrative costs to cover the goals of the TANF program to support and promote families. States have wide discretion over the use of these funds, which include income, child care and transportation assistance, job training, education and other services.


After almost 15 years of implementation and one reauthorization in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, TANF remains a flawed part of the nation’s safety net for low-income families with children. A key issue with the TANF program is the low participation rate. In 1997, 55 percent of poor children received TANF cash assistance, yet in 2007, only 24 percent received assistance. This drop is caused by a variety of factors: TANF’s loss of entitlement status as a government assistance program; an emphasis on reducing TANF caseloads; deflection or discouragement from the application process; difficult work requirements for families to complete in order to receive funds; and a 60-month limit to receive benefits, among others.


Another critical issue is the emphasis on welfare-to-work, a strategy designed to promote employment for TANF recipients. Although an encouraging sound bite, the welfare-to-work emphasis pushes many families into low-wage, part-time positions with little room for upward mobility. Additionally, it is difficult for families with barriers to employment (e.g., disability, domestic violence, limited education or poor access to child care) to comply with TANF requirements to receive funds. Job seekers found it especially challenging to meet the work requirement in an economy with high unemployment during the recent recession.


NETWORK believes that TANF should be a strong part of our national safety net, and has worked in the past to track the program through our 1999 and 2001 Welfare Reform Watch Projects. With upcoming reauthorization, NETWORK is working again to support legislative change to improve TANF. We are currently in the process of surveying low-income families with dependants across the nation. We will analyze and publish our findings in a report about the functionality of TANF in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. We have also been tracking the progress of congressional hearings on TANF and attended various coalition meetings with community advocates. It is unclear whether TANF will be reauthorized this year—it may be granted a one-year extension, but NETWORK will be working in the meantime to push for necessary changes.