Improving the Federal Safety Net for Women and Children- An Agenda for TANF Reform


In a climate of considerable financial uncertainty and steeply rising unemployment, Congress will soon take up reauthorization of the principal federal safety net program for families with children -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. Current congressional authorization for the program will expire on September 30, 2010. Though final action is unlikely much before then, now is the time to articulate an advocacy agenda aimed at rendering the program more responsive to the safety net needs of the women and families TANF is intended to serve.

The TANF program is of vital importance to women. Almost 90% of TANF families are single-mother families because most of the nation’s poorest families are headed by single mothers. Most TANF mothers have a pre-school age child, and many are ill or disabled or caring for an ill or disabled child or other relative. Forty per cent have less than a high school education and only four percent have more than a high school education.

TANF was created in 1996 to replace the AFDC program, colloquially referred to as “welfare,”– with the aim of ensuring a more aggressive approach to moving families off public benefits and into the workforce. In the flush financial times of the mid-1990’s, proponents never fully contemplated how the new program would continue providing a safety net in an economic downturn of the severity we are now experiencing. TANF adopted a harsh five-year lifetime limit on benefits and left states largely unaccountable for policies and practices that result in keeping eligible families off the TANF rolls. The result has been disastrous for poor families, as participation rates for eligible families have dropped to less than half, and benefit levels have fallen further and further below lifeline levels.

This paper suggests an advocacy agenda to address key gaps and improve the TANF program’s ability to deliver a safety net for women.

Reduce Access Barriers That Keep Eligible Families from Receiving Benefits

TANF deregulated federal supervision of state public assistance administration, and deregulation spawned a significant increase in barriers to enrollment or retention of benefits for eligible families. The participation rate for eligible families fell from 84% in 1996 to 40% in 2005, with the caseload falling from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 2.1 million families in 2005. The participation rate has likely declined even lower than 40% since 2005, as the caseload fell to 1.7 million families in September 2008 despite rising poverty and unemployment.

No issue is more important than reducing access barriers and creating accountability and enforcement mechanisms where barriers appear in state program implementation. A reauthorized TANF program should require that states: allow families to apply without delay; make application decisions promptly; offer assistance in obtaining verification and in recertifying eligibility; offer an opportunity to explain alleged non-compliance prior to issuance of a sanction notice; and continue benefits for the children even if a parent is sanctioned. The reauthorization should also give the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), new authority to regulate state administration, and should provide financial incentives and rewards for states to reduce access barriers.

Excuse Domestic Violence Victims From Certain Program Requirements That May Endanger Them

The vast majority of adult TANF recipients are women and a considerable number of them face domestic abuse in the home. In some circumstances, these women will be penalized or placed in danger if TANF requirements effectively force them to return to the home of an abuser or are otherwise insensitive to the needs of victims. A reauthorized TANF program should require (not just allow as under current law) waivers of program requirements whenever compliance would make it difficult to escape domestic violence or unfairly penalize victims. TANF reauthorization should also eliminate the mandatory child support cooperation requirement, as the pursuit of child support often triggers further violence. The decision on whether it is safe to pursue child support should rest with the custodial parent.

Revise Work Rules to Value Education and Training and Assure Child Care and Employment Opportunities

Current TANF work rules define countable work activity too narrowly, excluding many educational and training activities that can provide a real pathway out of poverty. TANF reauthorization should require that all legitimate education and training be counted as work, including secondary school, GED preparation, ESL, literacy, higher education, vocational job skills oriented training including for non-traditional employment. The reauthorization should also require and provide funding to states to provide child care for those who are seeking work, working, or participating in education or training, and to offer skills training, placement, and employment opportunities to applicants and recipients who are seeking employment.

Repeal Time Limits

Current federal rules set a 60-month lifetime limit and allow states to set a shorter limit. Each year thousands of families lose their benefits solely because they reach the time limit. Even when the economy is strong, TANF parents face significant employment barriers. The economic crisis makes it even less likely that parents who lose their benefits due to time limits will find a job. Time limits should be repealed, lengthened, or suspended in the event of significant unemployment rates.

Raise Benefits At Least to the Official Poverty Level

Benefits are inadequate in every state even as judged by the official federal poverty guideline, which most advocates agree understates the real poverty line. (The 2009 monthly poverty guideline for a family of three is $1,526) In July 2006, the TANF benefit for a family of three was less than half the official poverty line in all but three states, and the combined TANF and Food Stamp benefit was less than sixty nine percent of poverty in every state. The TANF program should require and provide funding for states to raise benefit levels at least to the amount needed to bring combined TANF and Food Stamp income to the official poverty level.

Cover Immigrant Victims and All Immigrants Who Are Legally Present

TANF is vitally important to immigrant women as they experience poverty at an even higher rate than native born women. A meaningful safety net program would not have restrictions on the eligibility of legally present immigrants, such as the current five-year waiting period that applies to many recent legal immigrants. The TANF program should also require states to make benefits available to immigrant victims of abuse to the same extent they are available to native born victims.

Eliminate Discrimination Based on Family Structure or Circumstances of Birth

Currently, the TANF program funds "marriage promotion" projects that do not offer services toe parents who do not want to marry or who are not permitted to marry the partners they wish to marry. A reauthorized TANF program should transfer current “marriage promotion” funding to proven anti-poverty measures that will be equally available to both marital and non-marital families. TANF should also ban child exclusion/family cap policies that deny benefits to a child born into a family that is receiving TANF, and policies that deny benefits for financially eligible two-parent families if a parent is employed full time.

Actions Requested: Legal Momentum has established the EndPovertyNow coalition and list serve to support, refine, and promote its TANF reauthorization agenda. Join the EndPovertyNow list serve by sending an email with “join” in the subject line to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

(April, 2009. Contact Timothy Casey, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , for additional information.)