The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the nation's primary safety net program for families with children, is due for reauthorization this year. The Urban Institute held a roundtable of experts from federal and state governments, academia, and policy organizations to discuss the program's current status and effectiveness. Experts agreed that TANF's goals need to be better articulated and that many key features of the program ,including funding, work requirements, and its place within the broader safety net, should be reexamined. Any assessment should consider especially how well TANF responds to family needs during a serious recession.
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This is a critical time to review the core of our
nation's safety net for families with children.
Congress will have to reauthorize the Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program
before funding runs out at the end of 2010. Yet,
despite intensive research at TANF's inception, we
know surprisingly little about its recent evolution.
The recession has raised fundamental questions
about how to conduct an effective work-focused
assistance program and how TANF fits into the
broad array of safety net programs. At the same
time, there may be lessons in how states have
responded to staggeringly high budget deficits as
well as to the funding and policy opportunities
offered them through the federal stimulus package.
To learn more, the Urban Institute convened
a roundtable meeting with experts from the federal
and state governments, research institutions, and
the advocacy community for a broad-ranging discussion
(box 1). We began by establishing a shared
understanding of recent trends in the TANF program,
including caseloads, state program rules, and
the characteristics of families served by the program.
The group sought to identify lessons learned
from the recession—perhaps the greatest test of
the program since it began—and concluded with
ideas for the future of TANF, as well as insights
and perspectives on the upcoming congressional
Although the participants expressed a wide
range of perspectives and opinions, shared themes
dominated the conversation. These included a
broad discussion of TANF program goals, especially
of finding the right balance between TANF's
dual roles as a work program and a basic assistance
program that provides a safety net for
struggling families. Participants also had a lively
discussion of the TANF work participation rate requirements, questioning the right way to maintain
a focus on work without promoting unproductive
responses from states. Program funding
was another theme, including whether funding
should automatically adjust during periods of
high unemployment or inflation and how much
flexibility states should be given. Another theme
covered TANF's role in the safety net.
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