Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

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Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

What It Means

The program Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) is a form of government assistance in the United States designed to help parents provide their children with food, shelter, and other necessities (such as clothes and school supplies) during periods of financial difficulty. The type of federally funded aid provided by TANF is more commonly known as welfare. Welfare comes in many different forms, including money payments, the allocation of food stamps (coupons with monetary value that can be used to purchase groceries), subsidized (that is, government funded) health care, and other benefits. TANF was created in 1996 as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), a law designed to overhaul the existing U.S. welfare system.

The primary goal of TANF is to create employment opportunities for parents of needy children, so that these individuals will no longer be dependent on federal assistance. TANF helps promote job opportunities through skills assessment procedures, employment training programs, and assistance with job placement. At the same time, TANF also offers guidance to program recipients on such issues as marriage and pregnancy planning, as well as other matters relating to maintaining a secure family life. One of the most significant aspects of the TANF program is that it establishes firm limits on the amount of government assistance a particular individual or family can receive. Indeed TANF was specifically created to replace earlier government welfare programs, which imposed almost no limits on benefits. Under TANF regulations aid recipients are required to find paid employment as soon as possible. If a TANF recipient has not found a job within two years of first qualifying for assistance, their benefits are terminated. That said, TANF recipients are eligible to receive additional assistance in the event they become unemployed again, although the maximum lifetime duration of benefits is five years per family.

The TANF program is administered by the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

When Did It Begin

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on August 22, 1996, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families was designed to replace earlier welfare programs, in particular Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was intended to provide financial assistance to needy children living in low-income families. Originally known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), the program was a key component of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of laws and social assistance programs enacted in the 1930s to stimulate economic recovery during the Great Depression (a period of severe economic hardship, both in the United States and worldwide, that lasted from 1929 until about 1939).

ADC originated as a provision of the Social Security Act, a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1935 that required the federal government to provide financial assistance to retirees, the unemployed, the disabled, and other needy Americans. Prior to passage of the Social Security Act, responsibility for providing social welfare fell on state governments, and programs and benefits were financed primarily through local property taxes. With its formation in 1935, ADC became the first federal program to guarantee financial assistance for dependent children living in poverty.

Under the provisions of the original law, ADC provided financial benefits only for dependent children living with a parent or another relative. In 1962 ADC was amended to provide additional financial assistance to unemployed, disabled, or otherwise incapacitated parents of needy children, at which point it became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The ADC and AFDC programs, more commonly known as welfare, represented the first federally mandated financial assistance program in U.S. history.

One unique feature of ADC, and later ADFC, was its promise of an open-ended commitment of federal assistance for needy children and families. In other words, the federal government imposed no limits on either the number of recipients eligible for the program or the length of time recipients were allowed to receive federal aid. During the 1980s AFDC began to receive a great deal of criticism, predominantly from Republicans but also from conservative Democrats, who argued that the program’s open-ended benefits policy provided little incentive for recipients to seek means of providing for their own financial security. These concerns led to the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (or PRWORA; commonly referred to as the Welfare Reform Act) on August 22, 1996. The new law eliminated ADFC, replacing it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike earlier welfare programs, TANF established strict limits on the amount of time a program recipient would be allowed to receive benefits, in addition to imposing restrictions on the total amount of money beneficiaries would be able to receive. This shift in the way that the federal government administered financial assistance to needy families was commonly known as welfare reform.

More Detailed Information

TANF provides money to states in the form of a block grant. A block grant is a form of funding that a central government (such as the federal government) provides to smaller regional governments (for example, state governments). By administering TANF funds as a block grant, the federal government enables individual states to budget and manage their own social assistance programs. In addition to providing block grants to individual states, the government also offers TANF grants to Native American tribes; these grants are used to establish and manage welfare programs on reservations.

While the federal government allows state governments a fair amount of latitude when administering TANF programs, there are still a number of basic requirements a state must fulfill in order to continue receiving funding. For example, states are required to comply with federal guidelines concerning time limits on individual welfare benefits, submit periodic reports on the status of the program, and work vigilantly to ensure that all adult welfare recipients actively pursue employment while receiving assistance.

Recent Trends

In 2005 the U.S. Congress enacted the Deficit Reduction Act, a law designed to reduce the federal deficit (or debt) by reducing funding for various social welfare programs. One target of the law was the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Although the program was reauthorized in 2006, it was revised to include stricter guidelines concerning the management of welfare programs in the states, with an emphasis on creating a wider range of job opportunities for TANF recipients.