On March 28th, 2023, the Work and Welfare Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing about the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, titled “Welfare is Broken: Restoring Work Requirements to Lift Americans Out of Poverty.”

The approach of the two parties was starkly different. Subcommittee Chairman Darin LaHood (R-IL) started the hearing by stating, “The primary goal of the TANF program is to assist families in need with a hand-up, providing a safety net of government assistance to find work and pull themselves out of poverty,” setting the stage for the Republican members to focus on work requirements. Meanwhile, Ranking Member Danny Davis (D-IL) countered, “The primary goal of TANF should be to reduce adversity for poor children by providing stability and support for their families,” teeing up Democratic questioning to center around family and child poverty concerns. Ranking Member Davis characterized TANF as a program for families with children, noting that two thirds of TANF recipients are children, almost 70% of whom are under age twelve and over 1/3 are infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

The witnesses provided testimony about the practical concerns of implementing the current work requirements in TANF. Shakirah Francis, Employment Services Social Work Supervisor for the Department of Social Services Employment Services Division in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, spoke to the barriers imposed by the focus on the number of hours spent on allowable activities and noted that current regulations remove the human aspect of the program. Heather Reynolds, the Managing Director of the Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame, called for more evidence-based employment programming and pointed to flexible funding and case management as successful models, as well as highlighting the need to give recipients ample time to achieve their goals. Jacob Maas, Chief Executive Officer of West Michigan Works!, noted the need to increase access to high school equivalency/GED programs and to focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Finally, Victoria Gray, a grandparent caregiver and foster parent from Phoenix, Arizona, provided insight about the limitations of the child-only allowance for kinship caregivers, pointing to the low benefit amount, burdensome application process, and the required child support referral as barriers for kinship caregivers.

TANF is important to child welfare because of its role in providing support to relative caregivers, as Ms. Gray and the Democratic members of the Subcommittee highlighted. It also provides significant financial support to wrap-around child welfare services and could address child poverty.

TANF funds flow into some foster care placements because the law allows some states to spend TANF funds in the same way they spent funds through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program before 1996 when TANF replaced AFDC. In this way, TANF supplements some of these out of home placements, a critical support since Title IV-E foster care and kinship care assistance funding continues to erode due to the ongoing eligibility link to the July 1996 AFDC eligibility requirements. Less than 40 percent of the foster care population is now covered by Title IV-E federal funding. In addition to this foster care funding, states spend more than $1.2 billion of TANF funding directly on child welfare services, including family preservation and family support.

In federal fiscal year 2020, at least 15 states spent more than 15 percent of their TANF funds directly on child welfare services, including the Chairperson and Ranking Member’s home state of Illinois, which spent approximately 20 percent of TANF funds (fiscal year 2020) on child welfare services. These funds are in addition to child only relative care placement services. Short of a significant increase in the $16.5 billion TANF block grant, which no member of the Subcommittee mentioned during the hearing, restricting this TANF funding would be detrimental to the goal of serving children and families, since these dollars have become critical funding sources for child welfare, child care and prevention services.

Recently the New York Times with Child Trends published their study, Expanded Safety Net Drives Sharp Drop in Child Poverty, which examined the impact of various federal programs on reducing child poverty. The analysis found that child poverty had been reduced by 59 percent between 1993 and 2020 (pre-pandemic), as noted by Chairman LaHood in his opening remarks, but the decrease was not the result of TANF as claimed. While that analysis found that “a dominant factor [in reducing child poverty] was the expansion of government aid,” the programs that had the greatest impact between 1993 and 2019 were, in order of significance: the Earned-Income Tax Credit, Social Security, SNAP, Housing assistance, Free and discounted school lunch, Supplemental Security Income, Cash assistance, Women, Infant and Child Nutrition (WIC), Unemployment insurance, and Home energy assistance. TANF did not significantly reduce child poverty in either 1993 or 2019.

Similar to other block grants that convert entitlement funds to a fixed allocation or block grant, TANF has been eroded by more than 40 percent by inflation. Additionally, some of the funding was eliminated in 2012. This loss of value has limited the impact that the TANF program has in addressing poverty, yet the Subcommittee did not address the need to significantly increase TANF funding during the hearing. Since it was created in 1996, TANF has had only one full five year reauthorization; that was in 2006 as part of the 2005 budget reconciliation. Since then, TANF has been extended without significant revisions by months or a few years at a time.