Urban Wire The F in TANF is for families: Reducing child poverty should be an explicit goal
Nisha G. Patel
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Today, I testified before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources about the need to strengthen the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The discussion illuminated areas for potential bipartisan agreement on TANF’s problems and the need to improve the program to better serve families striving for a better future for their children.

As I have often said in talking to practitioners, policy experts, and philanthropists, the F in TANF stands for families.  And we know how important families are for our children’s future: even modest increases in income during children’s development is associated with a 17 percent increase in children’s future earnings.

Many people do not realize that only 1.4 million families with children receive income support from TANF, even though 8 million families with children live in poverty.

  • When TANF was enacted, 68 of every 100 families with children in poverty received income support from the program. In 2016, only 23 of every 100 families with children in poverty did so.
  • More than 70 percent of people receiving income support from TANF are children. Most are younger than 12, and the largest share is children younger than 6. Yet children are often left out of conversations about TANF.
  • Half of TANF cases are child-only cases, meaning no financial support is provided for parents, grandparents, or other adults caring for these children.
  • Comparing TANF with antipoverty programs like Medicaid (which covers nearly 46 million children) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which helps nearly 1 in 4 children each month), it is clear that TANF reaches very few children who could benefit from income support.

States’ policy decisions and varying commitments to addressing child poverty have led to wide variation among state “TANF-to-poverty” ratios, which range from 4 of every 100 families in Louisiana to 66 of every 100 in California. In a growing number of states, 10 or fewer of every 100 families with children in poverty receive income support from TANF.

Somewhat unbelievably, reducing child poverty is not one of TANF’s explicit core purposes, but it should be. This would signal states and tribes to refocus the program to make more progress on a key, quantifiable outcome. In addition, TANF and related state funds should be targeted to low-income families with children.

TANF is a 20th-century program that doesn’t work in the 21st-century economy

Congress established TANF 22 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. The labor market has changed, particularly for low-skilled workers. Demographics and state populations have changed. The value of the TANF block grant has changed (because the grant has not been adjusted for inflation, its value has fallen nearly 38 percent).  

Restrictions on education and training create disincentives for states to promote access to good jobs for parents and to meet employer demand for skilled workers. If we care about children living in poverty, we must care about the parents and relatives who raise them. To help their children thrive, parents need access to good jobs.

In the 21st century, most good jobs require access to skills training, and often a credential, beyond high school. However, nearly 40 percent of parents with children receiving TANF have less than a high school education.

Unfortunately, current laws limit how much states can count parents’ engagement in education and training toward federal work participation rate requirements. Over the past 20 years, and particularly over the past 5, I have consistently heard from state and county TANF administrators that this creates a significant disincentive to engage parents in training that would give them skills for in-demand jobs that employers in local communities have trouble filling.

There is a persistent, negative, and stigmatizing narrative about people who receive cash assistance that does not match reality. In my experience, parents across the country—who live in urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities; who are white, black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American; and who have different political views—want to work because they want to set a good example for their children and they want a better future for them. Any changes to the program should keep our eyes on the prize: reducing child poverty.


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Research Areas Social safety net Children and youth
Tags Families with low incomes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Children's health and development Economic well-being Kids in context
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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