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Combining resources for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

Every family has their own unique circumstance, and they have needs that require a personal approach and a custom support system.

In brief
  • Re-establishing personal engagement with families to understand their needs has been lost.
  • Understanding resources available to help families is critical to supporting families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

When I entered state government in Missouri, I was not prepared for the challenges of helping people who found themselves in a vulnerable state or who had been impoverished for long periods of time with little hope of leaving ‘the system’ of public welfare. In 2000, as a Self Sufficiency Case Manager, it was my job to work with families, usually single mothers, to help them “get off” of welfare. That was the intent — to move off assistance. There was training about the requirements to be eligible for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program and the requirements to remain on it, always focusing on obtaining employment or going to school. We spent time with families and worked to create family plans to support their efforts, but all in service to the rules and regulations, maybe not always in service to the needs. As any good employee, I was operating from a position of doing my job well, following the rules and reducing my caseload. Soon, however, I noticed a pattern of families re-applying for services; my experience with “churn” had begun. 

My early years in the administration of public assistance programs were enriched by eye-opening experiences and learning that the world was not how I knew it to be. I felt like the Grinch because my heart grew daily as I encountered people who had basic needs that I had personally never considered. I became intent on helping fill those needs with the specific benefits I could provide as quickly as I could provide them. But over time I began to understand that the people we were “serving” were people who came to us for sheer survival. We were supplementing the physiological level of Maslow’s self-actualization pyramid (breathing, food, water), and maybe sometimes softly touching the safety level (security of body, of employment, of resources, of health). We weren’t impacting lives and helping people to independence, we were filling a fundamental basic gap, month after month, with few true-life success stories to show for it.

By the late 2000s the country was in the Great Recession and public assistance caseloads skyrocketed. At that time, I was in Florida state government and our caseload exploded taking on the volume of cases that would have been equivalent to 17 additional states … and we had no additional resources to help. During the recession, all states were focused on just taking in applications, processing them as soon as possible, and getting benefits to people. To just keep up with the onslaught of requests for assistance, interviews were waived, we became more virtual, and we lost touch with the knowledge of the actual plight of struggling families — there just wasn’t enough time anymore. We became really good at counting and managing widgets (aka families), unfortunately.

What is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families?

The TANF program is a federal assistance program for indigent families that became law in 1997 replacing the 1935 grant program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)). TANF provides block grants to states and gives them flexibility in how to spend their TANF dollars, so long as one of the four purposes of the program is met:

  1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives.
  2. End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.
  3. Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
  4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

The concept behind TANF sounds simple: families in crisis need help to bridge a gap until adults get back to work and the family can get back on their feet. Yet the reality is that all families have complex issues, especially those battling poverty. Oftentimes, “getting back to work” is not as simple as it sounds, especially when an individual has insufficient skills or education for today’s workplace, lacks transportation or quality childcare, provides care for an elderly or disabled family member, or a myriad of other potential barriers.  

Over the past 20 years, through our ever changing more virtual world, states have lost insight into the specific challenges of the most vulnerable families they serve. We understand less about their true needs, and we have little time and opportunity to work together to develop solutions for their specific problems so that they may live a life of good health and independence.

Improving results by understanding the real needs of our clients

To maximize outcomes for families utilizing TANF dollars, we must first listen to the voices of those who have received help and need help now. Engaging in discussion, asking questions, and offering safety and freedom to share honest critical feedback about the TANF program and those serving them is key for us to meet them exactly where they are. When we understand, from their perspective, where they are in the world and what they need, we can then apply a future-back approach to help them pave their road to independence. Imagining the future they want, and identifying the transformational path and actions they will take to achieve that future, will help provide clarity and attainability in the journey.

Boxing a family into the rules and regulations of TANF and providing a service or benefit to a family that does not move the needle out of poverty is wasteful and a misuse of funds. Instead, identifying each family’s barrier to independence, codeveloping a plan to solve the issues, and applying accountability to the actions is the first step. And if those needs and plans do not, or cannot fit into the current legislation, challenging federal and state government to rethink the opportunities of TANF for current day is necessary.

How do we use what we have to help?

Government cannot do it alone. The coming together of partners is key in supporting families. All states have “boots on the ground” partners, and they work together for the sole purpose of supporting their families. Neighbors and community allies coalesce their resources in their network and make connections in local communities oftentimes providing what is needed.

What is often not fully known is the extent of funding and grant opportunities available to states and local entities to bolster and expand the array of services. A data analytics and generative AI capability can assist states and counties to assess their needs, research open grants, use evidenced data to develop grant applications, and monitor successes creating a blueprint for future success.

Coming together to support families under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

Finally, we need to begin tracking outcomes for families, not transactional activities. We know how many people are on TANF and how many dollars are spent on TANF participants and how timely we are in disbursing those funds. But do we know if people are better served because we’ve provided them with the funds and services intended to help them? Applying a robust data analytics capability in our decision-making process to see which approaches have had the greatest success and build from those actions starts affecting lives, and we must expect the same from the community partners. Once we are data informed, driven and adopt a business intelligence state of mind, we can then coalesce around the combination of the data from multiple sources and make informed decisions that affect outcomes. We can operate from a position of actual prevention of crisis vs. reaction to it.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


The TANF program is a federal initiative designed to support impoverished families with children. It provides states with block grants to aid families in need. Challenges arise due to complex family issues and changing societal conditions. Effective assistance requires understanding families’ actual needs and obstacles, beyond mere compliance with TANF regulations. Success hinges on collaboration with community partners, utilizing analytics for informed decision-making, and adjusting policies based on outcomes to ensure meaningful help towards families' self-sufficiency.

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