The Core—A Cutting Edge Blog Series Getting to the Core of Modern TANF Reform (part 1)

TANF Agencies' Critique and Aspirations for the Future

By Babette Roberts    April 8, 2022

TANF is important—it provides millions of parents and caregivers the economic support that help them meet their basic needs; employment and training skills to earn family-sustaining wages; early childhood care that fosters development during children’s formative years; and services that prevent and mitigate childhood stress and trauma.

TANF was established more than 25 years ago with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about what works—and what doesn’t—to create communities where everyone has an opportunity for economic mobility and the tools to support the physical, social, and emotional well-being of our families. However, in the last 25 years, the structure of the TANF program has remained largely unchanged. While TANF’s structure as a block grant gives states broad flexibility, federal law sets forth a policy framework that shapes the way state and local agencies design and implements their programming.

The current federal framework for TANF emphasizes work requirements, time limits and penalties, and incentive structures that reward reductions in the number of families receiving assistance regardless of progress in helping them achieve family-sustaining wages. In fact, the last reauthorization of TANF, in 2005, reinforced an emphasis on work compliance and verification, which actually reduced states’ ability to leverage the flexibility built into the law.

  • Work requirements has been a core tenet of TANF since its inception and are set up as a condition for receipt of cash assistance. They must be fulfilled through employment and training activities, are time-limited, prioritize immediate work over longer-term career opportunities and family development, and require close monitoring for compliance.
  • Required lifetime limits cut off assistance regardless of a family’s success in transitioning to living wage employment and the structural and historical barriers that may have made that transition more difficult for some families than others.
  • Performance metrics, and the penalty and incentive structures that frame them, reward reductions in the number of families receiving assistance regardless of whether progress is made in helping them achieve living wage jobs and encourage sanctioning of families unable to meet strict compliance with program requirements.

This policy landscape diminishes the reach of TANF over time. Indeed, for every 100 families in poverty, the number receiving TANF basic assistance dropped from 68 in 1996 to just 23 in 2019. Fewer families are able to access this important program, and the program’s limited reach and punitive design reinforce structural racism, seeming to push more families further from opportunity. Research supports that racial bias affects the overall resources invested in TANF as a mechanism to advance economic mobility and the use of punitive measures, like sanction, against individuals and families.

In the United States, black, brown, and Indigenous children are less likely to achieve upward mobility from deep poverty, and black and Indigenous children are more likely to experience downward mobility. Work requirements and time limits do not take into account the deep and historic racial issues that have created a bigger hill for black, brown, and Indigenous populations to climb to achieve stable, living wages and see real economic mobility.

And yet the promise is there. Despite these challenges, TANF remains one of the more flexible tools to aid families on their path to economic mobility. Many state and local TANF programs and leaders are navigating the limits of TANF’s federal policy framework to enact reforms that improve upon the foundation of the TANF program in ways that listen to the lived experience of children and families to advance long-term family economic vitality.

For example, in Washington State, sharing power with those who have lived experience through the development of the Poverty Reduction Work Group Steering Committee resulted in the development of our 10-year strategic plan to end poverty and injustice meaningfully. This group of dedicated families—half of whom are people of color—provided valuable insight into a system that is, for them, a full-time job to navigate, often contradictory in its requirements and almost impossible to comply with. They consistently reminded us to be forward- and systemic-thinking but to never forget that “their children are hungry now.” The final strategies and recommendations, all reviewed and approved by this steering committee, have been widely accepted in Washington State and have already garnered not just interest but action that will see meaningful change now and into the future in our state.

Over the past 18 months, I have had the privilege of working with a bipartisan group of TANF administrators through APHSA’s affinity group, the National Association of State TANF Administrators (NASTA), to discuss the policy changes needed at the federal level and the state and local practice reforms we can be making now. In these conversations, we have been confronting the difficult questions we must grapple with to reimagine the way TANF can align the full array of economic and family supports in pursuit of the goals of the children and families we serve. We are intentionally connecting with the broader workforce system and leaders that represent the continuum of supports that promote child and family well-being to understand the intersectionality between our shared services. And most importantly, we have centered our conversations on the perspectives of the families we are here to help.

Through this work, we have established a set of Core Principles grounded in the values of equity, inclusion, and the limitless possibilities of human potential as a clear North Star. Each of these Core Principles has served as a guidepost as we have constructed a comprehensive TANF Legislative Framework with recommendations for reforming the federal structure of the program.

In the coming months, we are committed to continuing the work to look inward and listen to the people we serve to build equitable TANF programs that help families holistically achieve economic mobility. At the same time, we will work fearlessly to advance a national conversation on the federal changes that can accelerate and catalyze the type of reforms that can help to unlock the potential of the TANF program.

By working together, we can foster conditions that enable equitable economic mobility and well-being for all Americans. When our work is centered on people and public service, building common ground, and partnering across sectors, there is no limit to what we can achieve.

Read additional posts from the TANF Modernization Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5

About the Author

Babette Roberts

Roberts is the Director of the Community Services Division for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. She also serves as Chair of the National Association of State TANF Administrators (NASTA), an APHSA affinity group.

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