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Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF): modernization that truly benefits families


Understanding the full array of programs and services that are available to engage and support families beyond a small cash grant, and coordinating those services and partnerships is essential to a family’s ability to thrive.


In brief

  • The complexities and challenges for states to distribute TANF dollars to people who truly need them has not changed
  • By considering feedback from those who have a lived experience with TANF and input from other key stakeholders, the community and employees, we can create a desired future state

In 2019, while I was the Tennessee Department of Human Services Commissioner, the state legislature called me in for a high-profile briefing, which turned to be a contentious hearing concerning why the department had been unable to spend down its $732 million TANF reserve. I won’t ever forget the months that followed. The topic garnered a great deal of attention from the public. So much so that the local newspaper ran a series of stories that focused on examining the state’s expenditures. As a department, we found ourselves in a constant defensive posture as we struggled to explain the complexities and restrictions of the federal program. In each of the news stories, the local newspaper published a picture of me at the budget hearing wearing a white jacket. I often tease, recalling the months of media attention, that I should bury that jacket.

Years later, the jacket is long gone; however, the complexities and challenges for states to distribute TANF dollars to people who truly need them haven’t changed. The time has come for states to rethink and modernize TANF to ensure that our most needy families are benefiting from the program as it was originally designed. As Commissioner, I faced a situation where restrictive state laws and ambiguous federal guidelines prevented my agency from distributing these dollars quickly and in a way to meet the unique needs our Tennessee families had that might not have aligned perfectly to the guidelines. Families who needed assistance faced onerous restrictions to access benefits that fell well short of subsistence levels. At the time, the Tennessee monthly cash benefit was $277 for a family of three.* To receive this benefit, families had to muddle through overly bureaucratic and sometimes demeaning processes to puzzle through different and sometimes contradictory eligibility requirements for multiple assistance programs.

As governments concentrate on holistic care of families, we must pause to ask ourselves, are we really distributing these dollars in a meaningful way? Are we making solid investments in childcare and education, since we know there is direct correlation between lack of access to quality care and education and poverty levels? Are there innovative partnerships to help meet the needs of the families who don’t come to our doors? Have we asked our families what they need to grow beyond their current circumstance and enjoy self-sustaining lives?

The roots of TANF

To understand TANF, we have to go back to the program’s inception. TANF became law in 1997 replacing the 1935 grant program AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). TANF provided block grants that gave individual states more leeway to spend dollars, so long as one of the four purposes of the program was 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 intent of TANF was to create a program that led families to stable work and off government assistance. Welfare caseloads dropped across the country almost immediately after enactment and continued to steadily fall; however, and unfortunately, poverty rates remained steady.

The concept behind TANF is 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. But in practice, this portion of the safety net is insufficient to support reentry into the workforce. It also does not recognize the changing structure of families in America, including grandparents who take care of their grandchildren and parents who are unable to work.

Due to a variety of factors, such as the changing landscape of families and stringent state and federal regulations, many states find themselves in the same position as Tennessee — they face a large surplus of federal dollars. There is no doubt that these dollars should be spent for the benefit of families in need. Doing so requires a certain amount of strategy, innovation and understanding of local needs, all while balancing the requirements of federal and state law.

Innovating our approach to TANF

Assess the current state

To truly modernize the TANF program, it is critical that we begin with a current state assessment. The approach is two-fold. First, garner an understanding of the journey and experience of the TANF participant. Take the time to assess what is going well and what is not going well from the perspective of those with lived experience. Discover the barriers to participation and unveil any unmet needs. Addressing needed policy and process changes for the recipients first is vital to a strategic redress of future success of the program. This may require changes to how services are delivered – meeting customers where they are. The world has changed, and the time is ripe to rethink how people need to be served. This is also a good time to review and reconsider state policy to make sure our programs reach families who need them and are not unduly burdensome. During my tenure, we traveled the state and often spoke directly with our customers. However, talking with them was not enough; we missed the opportunity to take a purposeful approach to systematically evaluate their experience and make changes to improve that experience and impact.

Second, garner an understanding of current and prospective partners. There are undoubtedly many programs outside of enrollment of TANF that states are utilizing to bolster communities in a holistic fashion. Many agencies have come to understand the necessity of community partnerships and rely on those programs to be “boots on the ground.” They are neighbors and community allies with our TANF families. Understanding the full array of programs and services that are available to engage and support families beyond a small cash grant, and coordinating those services and partnerships is essential to a family’s ability to thrive.

Future state vision

By considering feedback from those who have a lived experience with TANF and input from other key stakeholders, the community and employees, we can create a desired future state of TANF. Having this consensus and alignment will help agencies strategically identify and focus on new areas to invest in without overburdening the staff. The aligned partnerships will also bring an opportunity to collectively adjust the program portfolio to meet even greater and deeper needs. It’s time to stop offering programs that have little value and invest in new programs that are directly unique in providing services to families. Having this defined vision not only allows innovative services to bloom, but it keeps the agency focused on its North Star and forges partnerships at the federal and state levels to meet compliance.

Implement and track outcomes

Finally, and perhaps most critically, 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. But do we know if people are better served because we’ve provided them with funds intended to help them? We need to apply robust data analytics to see which approaches have had the greatest success and build from those actions. We must expect the same from the community partners. Then we begin to coalesce around the combination of the data from multiple sources. That leads to better understanding the needs of the families and eventually using that data to inform our decisions, develop the right programs to achieve self-sufficiency and work toward 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.


Summary

Together, re-examining our TANF program in this way can help families go from surviving to thriving. In a time where so much has changed, we owe it to our families to rethink our role in the safety net and make change for good where we can.


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