Ten Things You Should Know About #TheRealTANF

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

Claudia Pedroza, Karla Osorio
Claudia Pedroza moved to the Denver suburbs five years ago with her husband and four children in hopes of a more comfortable suburban life, but her family still struggles to make ends meet. In this photo, Pedroza and her eight-year-old daughter Karla Osorio wait on line at the Jefferson Action Center in Lakewood, Colo., to apply for help with food and toiletries and to seek a new frying pan. (AP Photo/Kristen Wyatt)

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program was created by what is commonly referred to as “welfare reform” in 1996. It replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) as the program through which some low-income families are able to receive cash assistance.

With TANF authorization expiring at the end of March and needing to be renewed (and hopefully improved) — and over 46 million people still living below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four — here are ten things you should know about the program:

1) There is no cash entitlement program for people living in poverty in the U.S. States (including Washington, D.C.), the tribes and the territories have wide discretion, so there are more than fifty different TANF systems in the country.

2) Most people in poverty do not receive cash assistance. In 1996, for every 100 families with children in poverty, there were 68 families who accessed cash assistance. In 2011, for every 100 families with children in poverty, 27 accessed cash assistance.

3) Over the last 16 years, the number of people receiving TANF cash assistance has declined by 60 percent, even as poverty and deep poverty — people living below half the poverty line — have increased.

4) TANF is reaching fewer children. In 1995, AFDC kept over 2.2 million poor children — over 62 percent of all poor children — out of deep poverty.  In 2005, TANF lifted just 21 percent of children who would otherwise be in deep poverty, or just 650,000 kids.

5) The cash benefit is less than 50 percent of the poverty line in every state— so less than $9,000 for a family of three — and less than 30 percent of the poverty line in most states, or less than $5,500 annually for a family of three.

6) The TANF block grant has been frozen since 1996 so its value in real terms has declined by over 30 percent. Congress also recently failed to fund the Supplemental Grants for 17 poorer states which had received them since 1996, reducing the overall funding of these high poverty states by as much as 10 percent.

7) The “work participation rate” is a failed measure that stifles effective career pathways. The federal government rewards or penalizes states based on whether TANF recipients are doing “countable activities,” with no assessment as to whether those activities lead to employment entry, job retention, advancement or poverty reduction. So sweeping a county garage might be an approved activity, while post-secondary education leading to a wage that supports a family may not be permitted at all, or only for a limited number of recipients.

8) The work participation rate discourages states from serving the most “needy” families that have multiple barriers to employment — such as physical or mental health limitations, a child with a health problem or an experience with domestic violence — even though these are the people with the most to gain from employment assistance. The priority is serving people who are able to meet the work requirements with little or no assistance.

9) The TANF Emergency Fund placed more than 260,000 low-income adults and youth in paid jobs at the height of the recession. Thirty-seven states participated in this public-private partnership, and it earned bipartisan support from governors. But Congress allowed it to expire in September 2010.

10) A weak TANF has contributed to a rise in deep poverty. The number of people living in deep poverty has risen from 12.6 million in 2000 to 20.4 million people today. This includes over 15 million women and children — 9.8 percent of all children.


Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America. His work has also appeared on Common Dreams, Alternet, Tikkun.org, NPR.org, CBSNews.com and MichaelMoore.com. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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  • idlelies

    I wish this list of facts would have discussed the time limitations on TANF. Many people are erroneously under the impression that families can earn this benefit indefinitely.

  • Basil99645

    This is a disgrace to this country. No wonder we rank so low in the world in so many areas. We know better. That we just don’t give a damn about each other is so sadly proven by these statistics. We’re better than this. Aren’t we? Or has greed become so common place that no one gives it a second thought? We make up lies to tell ourselves so that we can live with this attitude and reprehensible treatment of our fellow man.
    We will wake up or continue to suffer the consequences. I say no more babies die!
    Thank you for your voice. Thank you for your research and thank you for having the courage to tell the truth.

  • http://twitter.com/LCinLA Linda Coburn

    I appreciate programs like TANF. But I disagree with the final paragraph of this piece. It is not a weak welfare program that has contributed to a rise in deep poverty. It is the lack of decent paying jobs, affordable education and housing, and the deep divide between the haves and have nots that has been the primary contributor to a rise in deep poverty. It is the greed of corporate America, where CEOs make 100s of times more pay than their average employee and the corruption of our government that feeds on this greed that is the cause of deep poverty in this great, abundant country of ours. Nobody should NEED this kind of program in such a wealthy nation, and certainly not hundreds of thousands of people.

  • Anonymous

    Since the benefits of the program have been so uneven and eroded and the requirements for participation demanding and possibly self defeating (depending on the state that’s administering it), the participation rate is only 27 of 100 families in deep poverty. I would not be surprised if this is completely discontinued at the end of March, citing low participation and budget cuts.

    Since Clinton “deformed” welfare, it has become increasingly crippled and disabled. This country gives lip service to caring for children, but realities can tell a different story.

    The push to demonize medicaid is also shameful. My child would have been dead several times over and crippled were it not for medicaid. She is 22, in college, healthy and thriving. Early interventions do help individuals and society to benefit. Can’t we just please cut the war-making?

  • http://www.facebook.com/aaron.archambault.9 Aaron Archambault

    I am all for helping the truly needy, but a government programs will never be the answer. There is a problem in the country and around the globe, and it is lack of community and too much dependence on “everyone else”, or the government. If a person “makes it” and builds up a business, they should not be under any obligation to give that money to anyone, unless they choose to. I know it is harsh, however i believe that if you did not have the government stealing from everyone, then people would be much more generous. The government who just makes money out of thin air so people think they are free to just give it to everyone. I got news, that money is digging us into a big pit and greater economies have collapsed under similar situations. I think reform is needed to bring the help back to where it can actually help people and then there will be less waste and fraud, and our government can downsize and continue to exist, or we stay on the current path and end up like the great Ottoman empire, or the Roman empire, and our children and grand children will read about how great USA was, as it will no longer exist.

  • Kaarli Makela

    But we continue to enrich the already wealthy with tax breaks, Corporate Welfare and other perks. Without kowtowing to the unlimited greed of the unjustly wealthy, ALL social needs could be addressed with ease.

  • Anonymous

    Moochers (yes, sarcasm intended).

  • Shawna

    It is both really. There will always be some people who cannot work regardless of how rich the society. Strong social programs also push up wages and by their very nature give people the ability to organize. In addition, a strong safety net provides the security people need to start new businesses. Social programs reinforce the social fabric. Without them, everything in society suffers.

  • esil13

    What are “46 million people still living below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four” doing having kids when they are that destitute? I never had kids because I was always working my way up as a young person going to school, just starting out after going to school, changing careers and starting at the bottom again to keep up with the new economy, building back up after losing job and house (the 80s Texas version), getting started again relocating to find work, or working as a contract worker with no benefits. I’d never think of having kids during that whole time. That said, I applaud Clinton and / or our society for helping those in need–because these days, we could all be there once at some point ourselves–but to be truly helpful and viable, it has to get people to be able to help themselves. Penalizing for going to school to be able to command more money is counterproductive and outrageous, and only fuels the myth that handouts keep people needy.

  • Shawna

    Strong social programs push up wages. They give
    people security and the ability to organize, which is really important if you’re afraid of the government. In addition, a strong safety net
    provides the security people need to start new businesses and innovate. Social
    programs reinforce the social fabric. Without them, everything and everyone in
    society suffers. In places where each person either “makes it” or doesn’t are not democratic places. They are places ruled by fear where people don’t help each other because any edge they give is something they lose in their own quest to reach the top. They are places where people spend their lives judging one another in order to figure out how to blame others for their misfortune and thus shirk any responsibility for it.

  • Tejanarusa

    Does it not occur to you that people BECOME poor – they lose a decent-paying job and they’ve already got their four kids? Not everyone has kids WHILE they are poor.
    Especially since the recession, and really in the last two decades, as jobs go away, or become lower-paid because of automation or outsourcing, families who could once support themselves on their incomes no longer can.
    Why would you assume kids are born when people are poor?
    Turning it around, though, do you support all the anti-abortion and anti-family planning laws and rules that have been passed recently? These are the very things that help people avoid having children they can’t afford. Do you really expect married people to practice abstinence for birth control? And do you really think “the rhythm method” works? We are so used to effective birth control we can assume people only have kids on purpose. There are still plenty of unplanned pregnancies, and there will be more with the destruction of low-cost clinics like Planned Parenthood that provided contraceptives for free or low-cost. Many, many things contribute to a family becoming poor.

  • Deborah Teresa Sears

    living in the south watching up close and personal and employing “barnhands” these piss poor excuses for humanbeings grow up fully expecting to multiply and know the system will pay for their seeds to grow,, so dont tell me the poor dont have expectations of handout because they clearly work that system right down to not marrying so the hospital gets paid to bring those angels in the world ,, I am all for helping the elderly but there should be some kind of system that guarantees groceries are bought for the needy and only groceries ,, not junk not McD’s and not drinks cigarettes etc,, hell if you are needy then no one is picking on you but at that point you really shouldnt have a choice in what you get,, you work for those rights!! Then you can get off the dole and go buy whatever you want,, no dogs no cats no pets no phone nothing that isnt a necessity of life to go on should be gotten at the taxpayers expense,, make it a little uncomfortable and even embarrassing and maybe the system would change,, there are no morals or principles left in the majority of people in this country and it gets worse by the day!

  • Maria

    Thank you for this. A perfect response to those who think cutting benefits will help people get out of poverty – a ridiculous and ultimately racist fantasy.

  • Catherine Simmons Miron

    We must help our brothers and sister who need help….It’s our duty as humans…Rep. don’t feel this way…Too selfish I guess….

  • RMerriam

    I will agree with you…right after you show me a period in time when people were generous enough to help the people in poverty. You will not find that period.

  • Jenni S.

    Exactly. Most have no idea there are lifetime limits. They have this idea people are living it up on “welfare” all their life.

  • Berta Roseberry

    I feel your pain. It is still hard for me to fathom after 46 years in this country that people live in such poverty and have such poor social system. It really does pain me a lot!

  • Jenji Morgan

    I entered the workforce without the benefit of an education and survived the 80s lack of jobs and fair wages in Texas as well. Now I’m 53 and childless. Who am I to judge. Would I have done it differently? Only if I knew now what I didn’t know then. Your statement is vague as to weather or not you now have children. The natural window of fertility for women shrinks rapidly starting around 26. I used to be smug and pat myself on the back for being responsible. I wish I’d been more responsible to myself instead of for society.

    In the end, responsible single and childless people just end up paying a higher percentage into the system for other peoples use. And now, sure I own a modest home and a modest new car, but the minute I become incapacitated for any reason, all that is gone because I don’t have any social support network. And the kicker is, after the Bush recession, I’m working for commission only so I can work full time from home because that’s all I’m able to do. More than 25% of my income goes to health insurance because I am classified as a small business owner. In the end, regardless of what you do, someone is going to say you did it wrong, even if that someone is just yourself.

  • Dave

    Government, Corporations and The Media collude to sell the idea that poor people are dirty, less than, undeserving ect.. People are there own worst enemy to ingnorat to realize only 1 in 100 will ever have enough money to brag about.. 60% of American’s just are pay checks or one illness from living on the street.. 80% of American’s do not have enough retired and will require public assistance to just survive.. SO They collude and conspire to defend these programs so the fleecing of on nation can be continued in a business as usual Government who serves their Corporate masters profit at all cost mentality.. “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”
    ― Thomas Jefferson

  • Richmond Mom

    Thank you for this measured information. We can use it to advocate.

  • Leslie Gray

    And I want to find a way off of this mess.

  • Brena L Hadjian

    And that if Child Support is ever collected it goes to pay back TANF, not the child.

  • Anonymous

    I worked for the state of Arizona for ten years and all the aforementioned statements are true. The #7 reason was all too true. I only know of one woman who finished a degree in an itt program and gained full employment. Most were not able to get beyond the fast food employment. Thank you for the article. This information should be broadcast on all the news programs, but, alas, it doesn’t pull enough viewers.

  • Anonymous

    When we all achieve your level of perfection, no one will be in need. Then you won’t have to applaud with one hand and slap down with the other.