Urban Wire Today's Welfare No Match for High Unemployment
Sheila R. Zedlewski
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When our nation’s welfare system was reformed in 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) was supposed to provide a safety net for families with kids when parents can’t find work.  But the latest data suggest that TANF isn’t filling this role in the current, prolonged downturn.  From the start of the Great Recession through 2010, the unemployment rate shot up 88 percent and the number unemployed for 6 months or more  nearly quintupled.

You’d think that the number of people receiving help from TANF would have risen too.  But TANF caseloads increased by only 14 percent. In 13 states, caseloads actually dropped.

Unemployment and ADFC/TANF Enrollment, 1979-2011


We don’t know for sure, but here are some possible explanations:

  • More people are getting unemployment benefits,  partly because so many single moms left welfare and found jobs between 1996 and 2007.
  • State TANF policies discourage people from applying for cash benefits.
  • Feeling stigmatized by welfare, fewer eligible families apply for help when they need it.

The TANF program is up for reauthorization this fall.  Although it worked well when jobs were plentiful, it should be providing more help to struggling families during periods of high unemployment.  Two ways forward are to revisit state policies that discourage TANF use and providing subsidized job and training opportunities for  unemployed TANF parents.

Research Areas Wealth and financial well-being
Tags Poverty Asset and debts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Economic well-being Employment and income data Tracking the economy Single-family finance Unemployment and unemployment insurance Families with low incomes
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population Income and Benefits Policy Center