TANF anniversary brings more changes for struggling families

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program that provides cash assistance and career development services to qualifying families with dependent children.  In the District, more than 16,000 families received TANF benefits in 2010, and the number is already greater in 2011. Read more in our brand-new policy snapshot.

TANF was supposed to “end welfare as we know it,” and in many ways it did. Most noteably, TANF came with strict requirements that recipients must be actively participating in the workforce or be enrolled in job training or job search activity. It also had a new focus and funding structure and features like time limits and wide authority for states. But welfare reform also left behind a program that is not responsive to a recession.

The Urban Institute has observed that TANF has not played much of a role in helping families during the current recession. This was true across the nation and in D.C. During the recession (2007-2010), the unemployment rate in the District increased by 75% but TANF caseloads only increased by 17%, not at all keeping pace with need. Other safety net programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps have greatly expanded their rolls. TANF's strict workforce-participation requirements along with state policies that discourage welfare use have prevented the program from being more responsive to the increased need among families with children.  

Cutting their part of spending on TANF is one way for states to save money in these tough economic times. That’s happened in D.C., too. For the first time since the program began in the District, there is a 60-month lifetime limit on benefits, as we outlined in our snapshot. More changes are happening for TANF in the near future, including the implementation of stricter sanction for families who don’t meet work participation requirements.

How will these changes affect children? It depends on whether TANF reform fulfills its promise of connecting recipients to jobs, where it has woefully failed in the past. If parents are left without assistance and no jobs, children will surely suffer -- not only in the short term, but in the longer term as well. Reseach shows that low-income children deprived of income assistance are less likely to succeed in school and will earn less as adults than their peers who do recieve income assistance.