TANF Background and Resources

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
January 18, 2006

In 1996, the President and Congress agreed to a broad-sweeping reform of the nation's system to assist low-income families. "Welfare reform" ended entitlement of impoverished people to government assistance that had previously been guaranteed since the 1930's. All federal welfare programs were reorganized, streamlined or eliminated under the 1996 law, giving states broad flexibility to design their own welfare programs. Federal welfare entitlements were converted into state block grants. Two important state block grants are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).

In the robust economy between 1996 and 2000, the reformed safety net—combined with the increased availability of jobs—has reduced the number of people on the welfare rolls throughout the nation by 58%. While this drop in enrollment represents some progress, concerns remain for those who have left the rolls and those who still require support. Many of those who have left public assistance have jobs that do not provide a family-sustaining wage and/or have lost essential supportive services, such as healthcare, and are left poorer than they were on welfare. Limited child care funding has increased the stress on families moving from welfare to work. Since 2000 the downturn in the economy has resulted in an increase TANF enrollment.

The authorization for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families expired September 30, 2002. Since then, TANF has operated at the 1997 funding level through a series of continuing resolutions approved by Congress. House leadership included TANF in Budget Reconciliation at the last possible moment many members were not aware of its full implications. This version of reauthorization includes significant changes to work participation requirements that would put enormous pressure on state child care programs and could lead to a sharp drop in funding for low-income working families not receiving TANF. Even before the additional work requirements were added, the federal child care funds were inadequate. Studies of TANF recipients have shown that the lack of affordable, quality child care is the single largest obstacle to employment for families receiving TANF. In order to meet both the child care and work costs of these new requirements, states may decide to cut child care for low-income working families who are not receiving TANF cash assistance. By 2010, an estimated 255,000 fewer child care slots will be available for low-income working families than in 2004.

Congress should reject the Conference Report to S. 1932 and consider TANF reauthorization separately and in a way that ensures that working-poor families, particularly low-income and moderate-income families, have the opportunity to move from dependence to self-sufficiency. Congress should in any reauthorization:

  • Increase funding for subsidized child care by the greatest amount possible, but no less than $5.5 billion over a five year period. Currently, all government subsidies combined provide aid to less than one-fourth of all eligible children. Parents of children required to work outside the home in order to receive assistance must have the opportunity to place their children in safe, high quality, affordable child care near their homes or jobs.

  • Retain the current work requirement at 20 hours per week for parents of pre-school children and 30 hours per week for parents of older children. We believe that expanding the work requirement would greatly increase the burden on TANF administrators, and the difficulties faced by parents in finding appropriate child care could cause them to make decisions that would jeopardize their children. This is especially a matter of concern to parents of infants and toddlers, for whom child care is particularly hard to find.

  • Expand the education and training opportunities available to low-income families. Current law allows participation in vocational education to count as work for 12 months. Many vocational programs require two years for completion; we therefore support expanding eligibility for participation in vocational education programs to 24 months. States should be allowed to count post-secondary education as a work activity. TANF recipients with higher educational attainment are better able to advance in the work place and achieve self-sufficiency.

  • Reinstate TANF eligibility for legal immigrants. A high proportion of low-income immigrants in the U.S. are in stable two-parent families, working in extremely low-wage jobs, paying taxes and unable to survive financially on minimum wage earnings. Legal immigrants should have access to the same forms of assistance available to other low-income families.

  • Give states increased flexibility to waive or extend time limits for families that face multiple barriers to employment. Problems such as lack of employment skills, need for English language and literacy training, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, chronic illness, mental illness, care giving responsibilities, and lack of housing, child care or transportation are all factors that often make it impossible for a low-income parent to work.

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