Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Separating Fact from Fiction in Programs that Help Struggling Families
Press Release

RELEASE: Separating Fact from Fiction in Programs that Help Struggling Families

Washington, D.C. — Tomorrow in Congress, the House Ways and Means Human Resources subcommittee will hold a hearing on improving welfare programs, with a particular focus on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. Throughout its nearly 20-year history, conservatives have cited TANF as a model program that other federal assistance programs should follow. Yet, that narrative ignores key shortcomings in the program that became apparent when the booming full-employment economy of the late 1990s slowed down. Modeling other assistance programs after TANF would be a recipe for exacerbating poverty and hardship.

In advance of the Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, the Center for American Progress separates fact from fiction when it comes to the success of TANF and underscores the importance of strengthening TANF and enacting other policies to reduce poverty and boost opportunity for struggling families.

Here are the top five reasons why TANF is not a model for other programs

1. TANF helps very few struggling families with children

As a flat-funded block grant of $16.5 billion per year, TANF has lost one-third of its value since 1996 and reaches just 1 in 3 families with children who are living below the austere federal poverty line today. In comparison, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is highly effective at reaching struggling individuals and families, with 8 in 10 eligible households receiving needed nutrition assistance.

2. TANF is woefully unresponsive to recessions

The number of families helped by TANF hardly budged during the recent Great Recession, rising by just 16 percent between the onset of the recession and December 2010, while the number of unemployed workers rose by 88 percent during the same period. In some states, the number of families receiving help through TANF actually dropped during this time.

3. TANF is not accountable for results

Just $1 out of every $4 in TANF funds goes to income assistance for struggling families, with states increasingly using TANF dollars for other purposes. Policymakers, the public, and the media lack even the most basic information on where these funds go. In comparison, approximately 95 percent of SNAP funding goes to helping struggling families purchase food and the error rate is among the lowest of all government programs.

4. TANF does not effectively serve two-parent families

Approximately 5.2 million children below the poverty line live in two-parent, married households with another 1.4 million children living with cohabiting parents. Of these households only 84,000, or 1.3 percent, receive basic income support and employment services through TANF. State demonstration projects that promote family stability such as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, from the 1990s should be reviewed and adapted for today’s family dynamics.

5. TANF does a poor job of cutting poverty

The number of families helped by TANF has shrunk by more than one-quarter—from 2.3 million in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2013—while poverty in America has been on the climb during that period. In no state does TANF provide benefits of even half the federal poverty level—$813 per month in 2013 for a family of three; in 16 states, it provides benefits of less than 20 percent of the federal poverty level—$325 per month for a family of three.

“With half of Americans at risk of experiencing poverty or near-poverty at some point during their working years, we should all be invested in ensuring that our nation’s safety net provides adequate protection against the ups and downs of life. Instead of undermining effective income and work supports such as SNAP and Medicaid by modeling them after TANF, policymakers should focus on strengthening the TANF program to serve as a more effective tool for helping struggling families get back on their feet,” write Rebecca Vallas and Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress in their column.

Click here to read the full column.

Related resources:

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Liz Bartolomeo at [email protected] or 202.481.8151.