The Core—A Cutting Edge Blog Series Getting to the Core of Modern TANF Reform (Part 4)

Uncovering the Evidence for TANF Innovation and Modernization

By Romuald Tassigne    October 19, 2022

More than 25 years ago, Congress established the Temporary Assistance for Needed Families (TANF) block grant through the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). TANF's last full reauthorization in 2005 expired in 2010, leaving the block grant to be maintained through a series of short-term extensions. Although there have been efforts to re-authorize TANF, the momentum for reform has stalled, leaving TANF rules and policies unchanged.

To advance the discussion of TANF modernization, APHSA has collaborated with state and local human services leaders to reimagine how TANF can support the economic well-being of families. Together, we’ve developed a set of TANF Modernization Core Principles to advance a new future vision of the program. Building on these core principles, APHSA’s members have laid out a legislative framework to unlock the potential of TANF. In this blog post, we will explore how our legislative framework reflects an evidence-informed, community-centered approach to achieving the economic and social well-being of individuals and families. Below is a high-level overview of that approach.

TANF Modernization Framework

Vision for TANF

Reimagining Family Engagement in TANF

Family should be involved in the decision-making process, co-create plans with TANF agencies, and receive individualized assessments reflecting their input and expertise.

Establishing Performance Measures
Focused on Outcomes

TANF services should be based on evidence that reflects the individualized needs, perspectives, and goals of program participants. TANF success should be assessed through employment and economic well-being in addition to other family stabilization outcomes.

Moving TANF Upstream through Cross-Sector Systems Alignment

TANF should provide services in coordination with other social services programs like child care, child welfare, and workforce development to achieve family stability and positive health outcomes.

Updating TANF Funding and Resourcing

TANF block grants should be increased to support families’ short and long-term economic mobility, including during public health emergencies, natural disasters, and economic downturns.

Re-Imagining Family Engagement in TANF

To help families achieve economic mobility, TANF must support the physical, social, and emotional well-being of the whole family. Likewise, TANF must prioritize individualized services and foster people’s sense of agency over their life and belonging to their communities. Instead of focusing on program compliance, TANF should encourage program participants’ autonomy as they chart their paths to economic mobility.

Having the necessary skills and education not only advances economic mobility but also increases families’ earnings potential in the long term. A systemic evaluation of postsecondary education and job skills training programs demonstrates that the earnings of people who participate in employment and training (E&T) programs are higher than those of a family of three at the poverty level (Oh et al., 2021). For instance, the 2009 assessment of the Year Up—a 6-month technical job training for information technology serving young adults (18-24) with low income in Boston, MA, New York City, NY, and Providence, RI shows that the program yielded average annual earnings above $20,000 (Roder & Elliott, 2014). As the evidence reveals that E&T programs yield positive outcomes, the federal government should remove arbitrary barriers to work activities and focus on allowing participation while investing in what works.

While E&T programs can yield positive outcomes, it is also important for Congress to review deleterious policies for families' needs. Evidence shows Work Participation Rate (WPR) and time limits can hinder families. Ginther’s (2017) study found that TANF sanctions contributed to increased in child neglect and foster care by 13% and 13.4 %, respectively. Likewise, Pepin (2020) shows that stringent time limits decrease annual TANF participation by 22% without leading to other positive outcomes for families.

Implementing service delivery models that support the whole family has also proven effective. For instance, Two-Gen strategies address generational poverty, increase social mobility, and promote child and family well-being by meeting the collective needs of families (Sim & Bogle, 2017). Coaching models represent another effective strategy to engage individuals and families. The Office of Planning and Research Evaluation (OPRE) conducted interviews with individuals receiving coaching and found that participants believed coaching led to key accomplishments such as removing employment challenges, achieving financial goals, and improving health outcomes.

Establishing Outcomes-Based TANF Performance Measures

TANF services should reflect the evidence of what works for families, including fostering participants' voices in developing individualized action plans. The success of TANF programs should be measured by their ability to achieve long-term economic and family well-being. Yet, the current TANF performance measure known as the Work Participation Rate (WPR) is inadequate, focusing on compliance over outcomes. WPR captures the involvement of program participants in activities and does not consider the social, emotional, and economic dimensions essential to achieving well-being.

To fully assess TANF programs, it is essential to consider additional employment and income measures. For instance, Harvard University Economy Professor Raj Chetty (2015) measures economic mobility in terms of income mobility and one’s movement up the income ladder as compared to others. Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Human Services has developed a “Self Sufficiency Index” or SSI to track all adults in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), the state’s cash assistance program. This measure, tied to labor force participation and SSI, calculates the percentage of MFIP leavers in a quarter and three years later who are no longer receiving benefits or working at least 30 hours a week. Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Human Services has collaborated with the University of Maryland School of Social Work to build on WIOA measures by developing metrics that capture annual employment and earnings.

TANF should also assess family and child well-being, looking at factors such as infant mortality or access to preventative health care. For example, the Colorado Department of Human Services Leavers Survey assesses success and opportunities in enhancing family well-being, as illustrated in the 2021 survey, where 40% of survey participants (584 respondents) expressed a need for housing services. Those that did not receive housing assistance experienced lower instances of employment at the exit and higher instances of physical or mental health needs. This also illustrates that while it is essential to assess TANF through outcomes-based metrics, modernizing TANF also hinges on alignment with other key social services. 

Moving TANF Upstream through Cross-Sector Alignment

TANF must provide adequate services in coordination with other key programs, including child support, child care, child welfare, and workforce development systems to promote family stability and prevention. To illustrate, research supports that child care subsidies reduce work disruptions and likely child maltreatment. As the Ha et al., (2015) study reveals, instability in child care is associated with increased self-reported physical and psychological abuse, while lack of emergency child care leads to increased self-reported abuse.

Similarly, the Beimers and Coulton (2011) study of female-headed households exiting TANF in urban Ohio counties from 1999-2002 found that families with involuntary exits from TANF were at increased risk of substantiated maltreatment.

Latzman et al., (2019) demonstrate how collaboration, without sufficient support, can increase vulnerability for families. They show that TANF-child welfare integration in Colorado was associated with increased rates of substantiated child maltreatment and neglect. While the study is unable to draw conclusions, one possible explanation was the corresponding lack of affordable, quality child care to bolster prevention. These findings highlight the need for conscientious integrated service delivery to support a multitude of family needs. While it is important to consider TANF through a prevention lens, it is also essential to update TANF funding.

Updating TANF Funding and Resourcing

TANF must be adequately resourced to invest in families’ short-term stability and long-term economic mobility. In the 25 years since TANF’s inception, the block grant has remained level-funded at $16.6 billion. However, with the depreciation of TANF due to inflation, the real value of the block grant has dropped by over 38 percent at this time.

Yet, evidence supports that increased funding to provide the support and services families need yields positive outcomes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strengthening economic support in addition to other family support services such as positive parenting, quality early life child care, and education prevents adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and enhances long-term health (Javier, Hoffman, & Shah, 2019).

Similarly, resourcing and restructuring TANF funding to increase benefit amounts fosters economic and social well-being. A study assessing the economic impact of economic support on foster care found that a 10% increase in maximum benefits for a family of four reduces foster care entry by 24%. Likewise, the Spencer et al., (2021) study of primary mothers’ caregivers (ages 20-28) shows that a $100 increase in TANF benefits is associated with a decrease in physical abuse.

A reauthorization of TANF is long overdue, and our TANF Modernization Core Principles advance a new vision that is not only rooted in evidence but also transforms TANF to foster upward mobility and the economic and social well-being of families. Reimagining TANF hinges on supporting families’ physical, social, and emotional well-being through a Two-Gen lens, implementing a continuum of services that support all jobseekers’ strengths and needs, prioritizing individualized solutions family-driven, and increasing TANF participants’ access to an array of services.

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

About the Authors

Romuald Tassigne (full bio)

Research Associate
American Public Human Services Association (APHSA)

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