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TANF Participation Declining Despite Rising Poverty Levels


Enacted as part of the 1996 “welfare reform”, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF), is one of various public assistance programs designed to assist low-income families in meeting their basic needs.  It is also an important tool for keeping families together and keeping kids out of the child welfare system.  While the intent of the reform was to strengthen the nation’s safety net for families, TANF’s ability to help struggling families has decreased consistently and significantly since 1996. Nationwide, 68 families for every 100 families in poverty received assistance when TANF began. This ratio, the TANF-to-poverty ratio (TPR), reached an all-time low in 2012 when only 25 families for every 100 in poverty received assistance through TANF.

Most recently, the decline in the TPR is due to rising levels of poverty, and decreasing numbers of families who receive TANF. Nationally, the number of families living in poverty in 2013 was 11 percent higher than in 2006, but the TANF caseload was 8 percent lower. Ideally, if poverty levels increase, there should be an increase in the number of TANF cases.

Among states, the TANF-to-poverty ratio in 2013 ranged from a low of 4 up to a high of 66. Eighteen of the 44 states that experienced a decline in the TPR between 2005-6 and 2012-3 experienced a decrease of more than 10 points. Nebraska falls into this category with a massive 29.4 point decrease, resting at a TPR of 22.1 in 2013. This means that only 22 families out of 100 living in poverty throughout Nebraska received TANF (known as Aid to Dependent Children or ADC in Nebraska) assistance to help make ends meet during a significant financial struggle. Meanwhile, poverty in Nebraska has increased by 6.8% since 2009 and 16.1% for children according to our Kids Count in Nebraska Report.

In order to make our safety net programs more effective at addressing poverty, we need to determine why trends in TANF caseloads and poverty numbers are not moving in the same direction. Among some of the reasons that state TPRs have fallen are tighter restrictions on the amount of time a family can receive  assistance and rigorous application requirements. We hope that the Intergenerational Poverty Commission established this year by LB 607 will allow us to examine this issue more closely and provide an opportunity to make state level changes to improve the effectiveness of anti-poverty tools such as TANF.

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