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TANF Cash Assistance Should Reach Millions More Families to Lessen Hardship


Families experiencing poverty need access to cash assistance to help them afford their basic needs and maintain stability, particularly during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Families use assistance provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to pay for rent, utilities, diapers, food, transportation, and other necessities. Yet too few families struggling to make ends meet can access the program, and TANF’s history of racism means that it fails to reach many families in states where Black children are likelier to live. If TANF had the same reach in 2020 as its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Child (AFDC), did in 1996, 2.38 million more families nationwide would have received cash assistance. Instead, in 2020, for every 100 families in poverty nationwide, only 21 received TANF cash assistance — down from 68 families in 1996. At an economically precarious time for families, this “TANF-to-poverty ratio” (TPR) is the lowest in the program’s history.

This paper analyzes TANF caseload and poverty data from 2020, the most recent year available. The official U.S. poverty rate rose from 2019 to 2020 — the first rise in poverty after five years of decline — due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.1 Widespread hardship has created instability for millions of families with children, some of whom have turned to TANF, among other public programs, for relief. But as this paper illustrates, TANF does not reach many families in need. Access is worst for Black families, who have been especially hard hit by the pandemic’s impacts. Further, though TANF caseloads grew in many states in 2020, the program’s benefit levels are extremely low in many states, falling far short of what families need to meet their basic needs.


Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2022). TANF Cash Assistance Should Reach Millions More Families to Lessen Hardship.