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Next Steps for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

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Document date: February 15, 2010
Released online: March 11, 2010


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 reauthorization.

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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Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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