Child Poverty

TANF, it’s Time to Grow Up

August 19, 2020 | National

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the nation’s core cash assistance program, turns 24 years old this week. And since birthdays are a natural occasion for self-reflection, this presents the perfect opportunity to highlight why TANF must be strengthened to fight for racial justice and help families afford their basic needs

  1. Money matters when it comes to children’s health and well-being. TANF’s mission is to help families “achieve self-sufficiency” through four main goals. One of these goals is to provide basic cash assistance to low-income families with children to pay for groceries, rent, diapers, clothing, and other basic necessities. Yet the program tasked with delivering direct cash support to families with children all too often fails to do just that; for every 100 families living in poverty, only 22 received TANF cash assistance in 2018. This is particularly galling when we know money itself matters to raise family income, reduce child poverty and help improve children’s outcomes for the rest of their lives.
  2. Children best grow and flourish in supportive communities where every child has an equal shot at a bright future, but racial and gender inequities embedded in our unjust systems make it increasingly difficult for all children and families to thrive. Thirty-eight million people – including nearly 12 million children – were living in poverty in 2018, with children of color and women bearing the brunt of those numbers. Economic security programs are essential for families and yet public benefit programs are racist and discriminatory from their very inception. TANF’s harsh time limits and work requirements have racist roots and have disproportionately harmed families of color–especially Black families. And Black families are far likelier to live in states that spend less than 10 percent of their TANF funds on cash assistance. Even the stories we’re told about people who receive cash assistance are deeply racist and dominated by false narratives like Reagan’s “Welfare Queen.”
  3. Millions of families and children were struggling to get by before the COVID-19 pandemic  because of politicians’ disinvestment in communities. They now face extreme hardships that have only been amplified by this crisis. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, nearly 59 percent of households with a child under the age of 18 had at least one adult lose employment income since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and analysis of data collected between June 18 and July 21 suggests approximately 19 million children, or 1 in 4 children, live in a household that isn’t getting enough to eat, is behind on rent or mortgage payments, or both for the week. Here too, racial disparities in job and income losses are hitting families of color– particularly Black and Latinx families– hard, with more than half of these households reporting losses, and few reporting they have emergency funds that could last more than three months

More than two decades after it was created in 1996, it’s clear it’s long past time for TANF to do better for children and families. In the short term, families must have access to direct cash support without facing barriers like burdensome requirements or sanctions. The temporary provisions proposed in the Pandemic TANF Assistance Act address these barriers to ensure families can access the support they need during the pandemic (read more here). In the long term, families need real, structural changes to the TANF program overall. TANF is an inadequate program that denies children and families vital assistance, and it has allowed certain states to exploit its flexibility. Congress must think critically about how it can help children and children of color thrive in this time of emergency and beyond. For more suggestions on what those structural changes could look like, see our TANF fact sheet.