Child Poverty

New Analysis from CDF: TANF Must Be Strengthened to Fight For Racial Justice and Help Families Afford Their Basic Needs

June 8, 2020 | National

Mom and baby

We as a nation are weathering a tough storm, and low-income children and families, especially families of color, are carrying a disproportionate load of the health and economic burden. As new research shows that this pandemic could cause child poverty rates to rise by 53 percent, especially for children of color, Congress must act now. Here’s where the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program comes in. TANF is the country’s core cash assistance program that is meant to help families experiencing economic crises afford basic needs like groceries and rent. But even before this pandemic, TANF cash assistance was too low, did not reach nearly enough families, and left out most Black families. Moreover, the program continues to be particularly vulnerable to the two deadly diseases plaguing this nation.

The program’s existing weaknesses and limitations mean that a TANF Emergency Fund is needed to meet the immediate needs of children and families during this crisis, and permanent changes to TANF are required to correct long-neglected design flaws. 

TANF is structured as a block grant and is authorized at $16.5 billion a year. For 24 years, this grant has remained the same, meaning that the value of the grant has eroded over time. TANF is also encumbered with harsh work requirements, onerous time limits, and exclusions that prevent families, especially families of color, from accessing critical assistance. States have used the power granted to them through TANF’s block grant design to find a multitude of ways to deny families assistance. What’s more, states regularly raid their TANF funds for purposes other than cash assistance, dimming the program’s poverty-fighting power. 

We’re left with a program that helps too few families. In 2018, for every 100 families living in poverty, only 22 received TANF cash assistance. And because spending on cash assistance varies tremendously between states, assistance is not felt equally between our struggling children and families. Black families are particularly hurt because they are more likely to live in states with extremely low benefits. Some families–like most immigrant families–are left out of assistance entirely. 

A TANF Emergency Fund helps to get around TANF’s structural problems by providing and funding additional resources that states may offer to families who need it most, especially during an economic crisis. A TANF Emergency Fund also allows states to offer this assistance to families without the usual restrictions and exclusions associated with TANF. That’s why CDF urges Congress to include the Pandemic TANF Assistance Act (S.3672) in the next COVID relief package. This legislation would: 

  • Suspend burdensome requirements. The bill waives work requirements, time limits on assistance, and other harsh requirements.
  • Create and fund a new emergency grant program. The bill establishes and appropriates $10 billion for Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Grants. 
  • Provide flexibility for states and protections for people. States can use funds to provide eligible families with short-term cash, non-cash and in-kind assistance to meet their basic needs. States can also use funds for subsidized employment, but with important guardrails. During a federal or state public health declaration, states can only use the funds for essential or remote work, respecting clear social distancing guidelines and providing proper protective gear. Only after a federal or state public health declaration ends can states ramp up subsidized jobs, taking into account worker safety and the spread of the coronavirus. 

There is nothing temporary about children’s well-being. Congress must both create a TANF Emergency Fund to meet the immediate challenge of this crisis, and it must also make permanent structural changes to TANF, as a key racial justice issue, to help children and children of color thrive long-term.

To learn more about our proposal to boost TANF and address its structural flaws, download our policy brief here.