By Margaret Wile
NCSL hosted a virtual congressional Hill briefing, “Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF): State Challenges, Successes and Priorities,” on May 14, with a panel of bipartisan legislators, including Senator Ralph Alvarado (R-Ky.) and Representative Ann Pugh (D-Vt.).
The TANF program has been providing limited supports and, in some cases, cash assistance to low- or no-income families with children for nearly 25 years. While the federal government has been assisting families with TANF funds for decades, it continues to work with state governments to ensure the program's sustainability and adjust eligibility requirements to best serve their residents.
A block grant created by the Personal Responsibilities and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996, TANF is a joint federal and state program. It requires a maintenance of effort (MOE) or state-appropriated funds, for a state to be eligible for federal matching funds. In other words, states must spend a specified minimum amount of their own funds or they risk losing all federal funds.
States have significant flexibility in how they allocate the funds and what programs and services they will provide, as long as they meet one of the four federally determined requirements.
“I like block grants if we’re given flexibility as individual states," Alvarado said. "We always say states are the laboratories of democracies.”
When TANF was signed into law in 1996, the funding was set to expire at the end of 2002. Since that time, Congress has mostly provided funding through a series of short-term extensions with the exception of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. The act directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create new regulations around work requirements and extended TANF for one of its longest extensions―from 2005 through 2010. Since 2010, it continues to be temporarily extended for short periods. Most recently, it was extended through September 2021 through the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
"In order to help families succeed, we need to pay attention to the well-being of children," Pugh said. "This needs to be explicitly in the goals of federal guidance and legislation.”
NCSL, in partnership with the other “Big Seven”—the national associations representing state and local governments and their elected officials—and the American Public Human Services have formed a coalition to advocate on behalf of their members to request that Congress reauthorize the program for a full year. During that full year, state and local organizations are asking that Congress and the administration collaborate with them to come up with solutions to improve the TANF program and its ability to be more sustainable and reflective of changing state needs to the program over the years. This briefing was one of many ways that NCSL has and will continue to highlight the specific and unique needs of states as they work to improve TANF to best meet the needs of their constituents.
Margaret Wile is a Health and Human Services committee director in NCSL's State-Federal Program.