TANF at 23: Reform is Necessary to Break the Cycle of Poverty

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) turns 23 years old today, but we’re not celebrating. Meant to provide families and children facing deep poverty with critical basic assistance and work supports, TANF has, unfortunately, made matters worse for most families.

Before TANF, funding for assistance was open-ended, meaning that if the state provided funds, the federal government guaranteed to match them at 50 percent. With TANF, the federal government placed a five-year limit on assistance for any family, even if the parent had done everything to find and prepare for a job. It also established major work requirements that force many New Jersey parents to work 40 hours a week without being paid any wages in community agencies that do not offer education and workforce training. The real goal of TANF was to pressure parents to take any job, no matter how low the pay or limited the opportunity.

As a result of these harmful changes in the program, the number of New Jersey families enrolled plummeted from 152,000 at its peak in 1981 to just 16,000 in 2017, a drop of about 90 percent despite the rate of poverty remaining largely the same. Whereas prior to TANF all families living in poverty received some level of assistance, under TANF only about 19 percent of families in poverty receive assistance. The amount of cash assistance for each family also decreased to about 25 percent of the federal poverty level in 2017, guaranteeing that these families would continue to live in deep poverty. 

Sadly, TANF perpetuates both poverty and growing racial inequity in New Jersey. Families of color have been harmed on two fronts: first, generations of discrimination blocked them from opportunities to escape poverty and build wealth, and then the very program meant to lift these families out of poverty blames them for their situation and continues to treat them as second-class citizens.

The good news is that this is starting to change in New Jersey thanks to growing recognition that the adverse effects of poverty on children cost much more to remedy later. Consistent with the state’s recent emphasis on improving maternal and child health, New Jersey increased the TANF basic assistance level by 32 percent in the last two years. This was the largest increase in the nation during that time and the first increase in three decades. At the same time, lawmakers repealed the draconian practice of denying assistance to newborns to punish mothers for having children while on TANF. New Jersey is also starting to place greater emphasis on education and training to lift families out of poverty and has created a model program that provides home visits to support and stabilize the family. 

This is clearly progress, but we need to do more to turn this program around and undo decades of neglect. New Jersey’s basic assistance levels are still lower than those in most states when housing is considered; some parents are penalized for taking good paying jobs; children are not receiving all the child support the federal government allows them; and children are cruelly having their assistance cut off if their parents do not comply with work requirements. 

Most of the TANF program needs to change if New Jersey is going to break the cycle of poverty. This is a tall order, but the legislature and Murphy administration have already shown they will not accept a status quo rooted in racism and intolerance, and that the purpose of government is not to keep people down, but to lift them up.