Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

If you are being watched, leave now!

TANF: A Social Safety Net for Women and Families

TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal name for the national assistance program for needy families with children. TANF is often referred to as “welfare.” The majority of families assisted by TANF are families headed by a single mother.

In support of our mission to ensure economic and personal security for all women and girls, Legal Momentum advocates for TANF improvements. Currently, benefits are insufficient, work requirements fail to account for childcare needs, and barriers prevent many of those who are eligible from receiving desperately-needed assistance.

TANF is administered by the states under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). TANF was enacted in 1996 to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The federal TANF statute and regulations are available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/programs/tanf/laws-regulations.

Every state has a TANF program. However, some states use a different name for their program. Detailed information about a state’s TANF program is generally available on the web site of the agency that administers TANF within the state. Links to the state TANF agency web sites are available at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/help.

TANF substituted a fixed block grant for AFDC’s open-ended funding. Under TANF, the enrollment rate has declined from 79% to 40% of eligible families and from about 75% to about 25% of the number of poor families; benefit levels in every state have fallen to less than half of the poverty standard; real federal funding has decreased almost 30%; the share of program funds used for basic assistance has shrunk from over 70% to around 30%; the program has responded slowly and weakly or not at all to recession and economic downturn; and arbitrary interstate and regional disparities persist.

In TANF, each state determines its own benefit levels. Benefit level amounts vary with family size. Participating families without income usually receive monthly grants equal to the benefit level amount, while families with income usually receive monthly grants based on the difference between the benefit level and their income.

Although most states have increased nominal TANF benefits at least once since TANF was created, the increases have not been enough to offset inflation. In all states the TANF benefit is now less than half the poverty level, and in a majority of states it is now less than 30% of the poverty level.


In the current economic crisis, more and more families are turning to TANF and encountering the program's fundamental flaws:

  • Barriers that prevent eligible families from accessing benefits;
  • Sub-poverty benefit levels that ensure continued hardship; and,
  • Work rules that stop parents from participating in education and training programs that offer a permanent escape from welfare and poverty.

Legal Momentum works to develop new laws and policy solutions that address these issues, alleviate women and children’s poverty, and increase women’s access to living wage employment.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Reauthorization

Building a Social Safety Net that Works for Women and Families: Family public assistance, commonly referred to as “welfare,” is one of the most critical elements of a strong social safety net for women and children. Our current system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), falls far short of what an adequate safety net program should be. Congressional reauthorization of the program, scheduled for February 2012, offers an opportunity to change that.

Welfare and Civil Rights

TANF participants have a right, like all Americans, to a discrimination-free work environment and equal opportunity. Federal protections against discrimination, articulated in the landmark Title VII, Title IX and Title VI legislation, extend to TANF recipients in work placements and training programs. 

In 1999 the Department of Health and Human Services clarified that the laws applied to TANF beneficiaries just as they apply to all other workers.

Federal anti-discrimination laws offer a much needed vehicle for holding states accountable for discriminatory practices in the state-level administration of TANF. TANF participants can seek a remedy if they experience sexual harassment or race or gender-based discrimination.

Past litigation on this front has reduced gender-based career education tracking, opening up more training opportunities for women in non-traditional fields. Legal Momentum continues to advocate for expanded access to non-traditional career training tracks for welfare recipients, and for training and education to be counted towards recipients’ workfare requirements.

For more information on this issue, see TANF Reports and Resources: Welfare and Civil Rights.

Public Benefits for Immigrant Women

Generally, with some important exceptions, only immigrants who have been legally residing in the country for five years can access public benefits like TANF and Medicaid. However, immigrant women suffering domestic violence may be able to qualify for benefits earlier depending on their state’s rules for such waivers.

Access to public benefits is especially important for immigrant victims of domestic violence. Immigrant women are consistently one of the most at-risk populations in the nation, experiencing the highest rates of personal violence, as well as the poorest. Access to public benefits such as TANF, Medicaid, and housing assistance can make the difference between staying with an abuser and taking steps to personal security.

For more information on this issue, see Reports and Resources: Public Benefits for Immigrant Women.