Applying for Welfare via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program


( – Formally formed in 1997, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, or TANF, became the newest form of welfare to be enacted in the United States. While there were other programs before it, TANF gained popularity because of its unique guiding principles — mainly the idea that indigent Americans who receive temporary assistance when in need can also be guided back to the workforce, becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant again.

TANF recipients do not receive benefits directly from the federal government. Each state receives a grant and is then able to customize its own temporary welfare programs as long a they operate within specific guidelines. For example, no recipient can receive TANF benefits for more than 5 years total in their lifetime and must meet defined work requirements within a set period of time.

What is TANF Used For?

While each state can decide how to spend funds, the primary goal of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program is to fulfill one of these four criteria:

  • Ensuring families are able to care for their children either in their own homes, or in those of close relatives/family members.
  • Helping single Americans prevent unwanted pregnancies
  • Encouraging two-parent families to either form or stay together
  • Ensuring parents are able to become self-sufficient through any or a combination of marriage, actual time working, or job skills training

These four goals or purposes are considered very broad, which gives states a ton of room when it comes to determining how to distribute funds. A unique element of TANF is that it acknowledges a very disturbing racist trend in the way older cash assistance programs were regulated. One of the goals is to rebuke some of these harmful and disturbing narratives while closing the gap that in the past has left Black families without the assistance they really needed. Every family facing a financial crisis should be able to meet their basic needs. TANF aims to provide that support.

TANF Eligibility Guidelines

Federal law requires that TANF funds only be distributed to families with children who are in need. How “neediness” is defined happens on a state-by-state basis and varies greatly. The majority of states require a family to be well below established poverty levels.

No matter what the state guidelines, the following rules apply on a federal level:

  • Legal, documented immigrants who received qualified status after 1996 must (with few exceptions) be in the US for at least 5 years before they qualify for TANF programs.
  • Children who are US citizens may qualify for TANF benefits, even if their parents do not yet have citizen immigrant status.
  • Federal law excludes recipients with felony drug convictions. That said, states can override this rule, but only if they do so with formal legislation. As of right now, 25 states have fully lifted the rule, 18 have partially lifted it, and seven still exercise the full lifetime ban.
  • In many states, families who have additional children while receiving TANF benefits are subjected to a “family cap.” This means they can’t get additional assistance to compensate for the additional children. This policy is one of many considered to be racist and only 11 states still enforce this type of policy.
  • Families that collect TANF may have all or some of any child support payments owed to them taken back by their states as a form of reimbursement for welfare benefits. Most states will take all of the child support money, while others will allow for a partial pass-through. The states that do allow for a partial pass-through do not usually count that money towards overall TANF eligibility calculations.

In addition to meeting qualification guidelines set by each state, all recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits must meet minimum work requirements. The federal grant program sets “work participation rates” that states need to meet. The simplest explanation is that at least 50% of single-parent TANF recipients in any given state must be meeting a 30-hour work week requirement. Two-parent households must have a 90% rate of households where the parents are working at least 35 hours per week combined. There are, however, “caseload reduction credits” states can earn in order to lower their targets and avoid penalties.

The work requirements includes a number of categories of “work activities.” This means hours still count towards the total if a person is doing job search or job training. They might, for example, be participating in some form of education, but that can’t count towards 100% of their work activity requirement. Someone taking classes, for example, may end up taking 10 hours of classes and then working 20 hours per week at an actual job.

The federal government does not allow states to continue to fund individuals who refuse to meet work requirements. There are very few reasons, or “good causes” for a person on welfare to refuse to work.

The Controversy around TANF

The reality is that while TANF is considered a great safety net, it is also considered by many to be a very weak program. While the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has helped create a decline in the number of households receiving cash payments, the reason is mostly because of the strict guidelines and low income thresholds states have enacted — not a reduced number of families actually in need.

Even with job training and assistance, a great number of recipients do not rise so far above the poverty line that they don’t need help. They simply end up in the same situation again or, sadly, age out of the lifetime limit of the program.

Finding TANF Benefits in Your State

Despite its strict limitations and perceived drawbacks, there is no doubt the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program can and does offer at least some assistance to families struggling to meet their basic needs.

Don’t hesitate to attempt an application if your family is in need. Check out this map to find the contact information for your state of residence.

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