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Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF)

Written by: Jody Adams
Last updated: January 31, 2024

With numerous personal and economic challenges, more and more American families are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, according to the latest census, 11.6% of the U.S. population, or about 37.9 million people, live under the poverty line. 

However, poverty is an enemy that the government continuously seeks to defeat. As a priority of the federal government, different financial assistance programs have been launched to help those in need. That includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

This resource page discusses the details and requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal program and how it can help families receive support to get back on track.

What Is TANF

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was launched in 1996 to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the aim of helping needy families become self-sufficient.

TANF is mainly focused on four main purposes:

  • Assist families in need so their children can receive the proper care
  • Help parents become independent through job preparation, permanent work, and committing to marriage
  • Reduce the instances of pregnancies out of wedlock
  • Encourage and maintain two-parent families

As of June 2022, TANF provides about $16.5 billion across the states, the District of Columbia, and US territories.

How Does TANF Work

Compared to other programs where cash is directly provided to the beneficiaries, TANF operates differently. Each state and territory is provided with TANF grants, which they can use to fund monthly cash assistance payments to successful applicants.

Because TANF varies per state, they may also be known under different names, like California’s CalWORKSNevada’s Access Nevada, and Wyoming’s POWER programs.

Consequently, for a state to receive federal funds for their TANF grants, they must also spend through Maintenance of Effort spending. This means that the states must spend 75-80% as a contribution to the program. In 2020, this meant roughly $15 billion to match the $16.5 billion.

It is notable that the state has the power to decide on the eligibility and benefit levels that the beneficiaries of the TANF program will get, depending on their assessment of the person’s application.

TANF Cash Assistance Eligibility

Because the administration of TANF is at the state level, the state also has the freedom to determine a family’s eligibility to receive cash assistance. The federal law only asks for assistance to extend to needy families with children. However, they did not define the qualification to be categorized as “needy.”

Again, the state has the power to set its standards on what “needy” should mean. They will also set their own policies on determining financial need, including income thresholds for what should qualify below the poverty line.

For most states, TANF is eligible for families with:

  • One child who is a US citizen or an eligible immigrant under 18 or a child aged 18 to 19 who attends secondary school
  • One adult relative of the said child or a pregnant woman
  • Good conduct requirements
  • Income that is considered as needy

Aside from that, the state will also decide the policies that will restrict who can receive cash assistance and in what amount. For instance, they can define the time limit on the assistance. Most states will only provide monthly payments for up to 60 months, but eight other states even set lower limits.

There are also cases that limit people’s access to TANF eligibility. These include:

  • People with qualified immigration status after 1996 but haven’t been in the US for five years
  • People with drug felony convictions
  • Non-custodial parents
  • Other children of a family with one child beneficiary of TANF

If you want to know about the specific TANF eligibility and application requirements in your state, you can check the Office of Family Assistance or contact your local state office.

TANF Work Requirements

If you have received eligibility for TANF cash assistance, you still have to do your end of the bargain — work participation.

In the TANF guidelines, states are responsible for engaging TANF recipients in finding stable jobs. With this in mind, they require at least half of the families that receive TANF to be engaged in a work activity for 20 hours a week if you are a single parent and 30 hours a week for two-parent households.

Work activities include education, training, job application, job searching, and similar tasks, but they will not be counted in full, unlike working on an actual job.

If a TANF beneficiary does not comply with these work requirements, their benefits may be reduced or fully taken away.

It is notable here that the exact hours required and the weight of various activities may vary per state, as they have the power to sanction policies.

Alternatives To TANF

TANF is a welfare option for many struggling families but has its limitations. If you fail to meet its requirements, you may also consider these alternatives.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps families meet their family’s food budget through food stamps, with an aim to eventually work towards self-sufficiency. 

Head Start

Head Start is a program that allows low-income families to have access to childcare and early childhood education, especially if the parents have work responsibilities that limit their time with their children.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learn further about TANF by getting the answers to some common questions below:

Is TANF food stamps?

TANF is a welfare program, but it is different from food stamp programs as it gives people financial aid and assistance through services.

How long do most recipients receive TANF payments?

While states can establish their own time limit policies, they cannot provide cash assistance from federal TANF funds to a family that consists of an adult recipient for more than 60 months. However, states can surpass the 60-month limit for up to 20% of families based on hardship.

How long does a TANF application process take?

The application process for TANF can take 30 to 45 days, depending on how thorough you are in submitting the complete requirements.

Get The Help You Need From TANF

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families give families in need an opportunity to get back on their feet by supplementing their income while they find a stable job. Benefits vary from state to state, but this aid can greatly help, especially amid financial difficulties.

Do you want to learn more about financial assistance programs that can help individuals and families with particular needs? Explore the rest of Gov Relations and our free resources. You can get started with our guides to various government grants today!

Jody Adams
Jody Adams is an accomplished editor-in-chief with a deep understanding of social care and government benefits issues. With a background in journalism and a master's degree in Public Policy, Jody has spent her career shaping the narrative around social policies and their impact on society. She has worked with renowned publications, effectively bridging the gap between complex policy analysis and public understanding. Jody's editorial expertise ensures that vital information on social care and government benefits reaches a broad audience, empowering individuals to make informed decisions.
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