18 Years of TANF

Every Friday, the Montana Budget & Policy Center picks a Number of the Week, and we post a short note on our Facebook page. This week, I’m taking a closer look at our number.

This week’s number: 18

Eighteen years ago today, Congress drastically changed the way we help families experiencing poverty. As part of the 1996 welfare reform law, Congress passed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block grant to the states, to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report today that shows the history of TANF over the past 18 years. It’s not a pretty story. Over the past two decades, TANF is now serving fewer and fewer families experiencing poverty, and the assistance this program provides doesn’t come close to meeting the basic needs to help lift families out of poverty. 

Since 2000, the number of families experiencing poverty has been increasing, and today, over 7 million families with children are in poverty. But the number of families participating in TANF has dropped – from 4.7 million in 1996 to only 1.7 million in 2013. Poverty rates have increased, while TANF caseloads have dropped.  As you can see below, the portion of families experiencing poverty that receive TANF has declined to dismal levels. 

tanf graphic

This scenario is no different when you look at Montana figures. In fact, Montana is providing help to even fewer families experiencing poverty than nationally. 

TANF-Poverty

Part of the issue is federal – Congress has not increased funding or even adjusted TANF block grants to inflation, so states are receiving 32 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997. But states have also made changes to their programs over the years that have made it even harder for families to access this help.  

We have an opportunity to improve our state’s TANF program. Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state agency in charge of TANF, is taking a close look at Montana’s TANF program and has established a steering committee to recommend ways we can improve our program. The committee has been meeting with TANF participants, contractors, and other stakeholders to look at ways that we can help Montana families meet their basic needs and provide financial and economic stability going forward. This process is a huge step in the right direction, and we look forward to helping build a better TANF program for Montana children and families.

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