Urban Wire Why fathers often don’t apply for cash assistance
Heather Hahn
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This Father’s Day, while many fathers were grilling burgers with their families, some worried about how to feed and support their families. Fathers living in deep poverty with high hurdles to finding steady, minimum-wage jobs might not realize they are eligible to receive cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. They might think—mistakenly—that assistance is available only to single mothers.

But single fathers and two-parent families can receive cash assistance, too.

The cash assistance they could receive would be minimal—the average TANF family receives less than $400 per month. And parents would need to look for work and participate in activities designed to help them become employed, such as developing résumés and learning job search strategies. Couples generally need to engage in work-related activities for a combined 55 hours per week. But that cash assistance might be the difference between having enough money for clean diapers and laundry detergent, or not.

Although relatively few poor families are eligible for cash assistance, even fewer apply for and receive it. In 2013, 30 percent of eligible single-parent families received assistance. Among families with two eligible parents, just 19 percent received assistance.

In a new study released this week, Urban Institute researchers interviewed nearly 80 low-income adults in two-parent families about their experiences with—or without—TANF assistance. Researchers also interviewed TANF staff and examined the characteristics of two-parent TANF families and their program participation rates. TANF staff and recipients frequently reported that women were more willing to seek assistance than men.

Lack of awareness about TANF is one major reason a two-parent family might not seek assistance. A father of three who was not receiving assistance told Urban researchers, “I was told they don’t give cash assistance. I don’t know anyone who collects assistance. You get food stamps or medical, but I don’t know anyone who gets cash. As far as I know, it was stopped a few years ago.” 

Low-income fathers also said that their pride influenced their decisions about whether to seek assistance. They consistently expressed a strong sense of responsibility for supporting their families. For some, this meant not seeking assistance. For others, it meant reluctantly applying for assistance because they acknowledged they needed it, at least in the short term, to help support their families.

“With kids, you have to set your pride aside,” one father said. “I could be too prideful to come in, don’t want to be seen at the office. But if that means my daughter will be hungry, then I will stand in line and wait as long as it takes.”

Despite their desire for self-sufficiency, the fathers interviewed in this study shared experiences of being unable to find stable work; having a seriously ill child; having learning difficulties or mental health issues or having a spouse with these challenges; not having a car or other reliable transportation; or through “a bad string of bad luck, bad timing,” another father said, all of these circumstances at once. They generally expected their financial situations to improve soon but, in the meantime, those receiving TANF were grateful.

“It would be very important to me to get off of TANF. I’ve only been on it since my daughter was born, and I’ve always paid my way. It’s a hard thing to do,” one father said. “[But] we depend on that money.… If it wasn’t for TANF, we wouldn’t have anything.”


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Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Economic well-being Wages and nonwage compensation Inequality and mobility
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population