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Fail Again, Fail Worse: Fewer Families Received TANF Cash Assistance in 2020 than in 2019

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the centerpiece of the Gingrich-Clinton era “welfare reform,” was signed into law 25 years ago this August. Past research has documented that TANF largely failed to respond to the Great Recession. While the number of families receiving TANF did increase modestly in 2009 and 2010, the increases were so slight that TANF ended up playing “essentially no role in smoothing the income fluctuations experienced by families” during this period.  

Recently updated data on TANF’s performance during the pandemic recession suggest that TANF is on track to “fail worse” this time. As the table below shows, the total number of families in the United States receiving income assistance from TANF actually declined, by 3.5 percent, in 2020. 

Despite Pandemic Recession, Fewer Families Received TANF Assistance in 2020

Average monthly number of families receiving TANF in 2019 and 2020 by state

 20192020Difference: 2020-2019Percentage Change: 2019-2020
United States1,096,5941,057,711-38,883-3.5%
Alabama7,4507,113-337-4.5%
Alaska2,3612,234-127-5.4%
Arizona6,9647,93997514.0%
Arkansas2,4152,187-228-9.4%
California373,362344,095-29,267-7.8%
Colorado14,11813,584-534-3.8%
Connecticut7,8976,955-942-11.9%
Delaware3,3682,848-520-15.4%
District of Columbia7,4187,432140.2%
Florida38,75841,4262,6686.9%
Georgia9,1498,327-822-9.0%
Guam44945230.7%
Hawaii4,1165,6901,57438.2%
Idaho2,0271,885-142-7.0%
Illinois10,78210,688-94-0.9%
Indiana5,3887,1671,77933.0%
Iowa8,9007,954-946-10.6%
Kansas3,8233,9701473.8%
Kentucky16,91115,129-1,782-10.5%
Louisiana4,2463,403-843-19.9%
Maine15,82213,112-2,710-17.1%
Maryland16,29522,5546,25938.4%
Massachusetts49,53445,604-3,930-7.9%
Michigan11,07813,5662,48822.5%
Minnesota15,60716,2106033.9%
Mississippi3,2032,332-871-27.2%
Missouri9,8019,486-315-3.2%
Montana3,3132,792-521-15.7%
Nebraska4,4104,6612515.7%
Nevada8,0987,480-618-7.6%
New Hampshire5,2434,844-399-7.6%
New Jersey8,9809,4534735.3%
New Mexico9,87410,9951,12111.4%
New York115,779115,004-775-0.7%
North Carolina13,43513,8143792.8%
North Dakota946999535.6%
Ohio50,44852,7242,2764.5%
Oklahoma5,8995,629-270-4.6%
Oregon35,65330,785-4,868-13.7%
Pennsylvania40,19833,806-6,392-15.9%
Puerto Rico4,6354,244-391-8.4%
Rhode Island3,9363,172-764-19.4%
South Carolina7,9847,818-166-2.1%
South Dakota2,9122,752-160-5.5%
Tennessee19,20116,478-2,723-14.2%
Texas22,62920,269-2,360-10.4%
Utah3,2272,832-395-12.2%
Vermont2,7172,298-419-15.4%
Virgin Islands10773-34-31.8%
Virginia17,37718,4021,0255.9%
Washington36,36341,0554,69212.9%
West Virginia6,3615,919-442-6.9%
Wisconsin15,12315,5704473.0%
Wyoming507503-4-0.8%

Source: CEPR analysis of HHS TANF Caseload Data for 2019 and 2020.

The number of families receiving TANF decreased in 34 states and territories and increased in 16 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. But in most of the states with increases, fewer than 1,000 additional families received TANF assistance in 2020. 

As CEPR has previously documented, working class mothers were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic recession. A well-functioning program designed to increase the economic security of working class and low-income parents would have responded to this crisis by providing more income assistance to more families with children. TANF is a failed experiment. It’s time to repeal and replace it with a real and effective social security program.

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