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Problems with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Updated on November 28, 2009


This is an academic article mixing the ideas and information from a number of articles and studies found in peer-reviewed journals.

There are two things to understand before reading this article:

  1. The article isn't an easy, breezy take on basic problems with the state of welfare, nor does it discuss those certain bad apples that exploit the welfare system. It simply tries to highlight certain institutional and policy flaws in the TANF welfare system itself.
  2. This article does not set forth any "calls to action" or policy changes that should be implemented. It does not provide solutions, but is simply an overview of the problem.

To check my sources, or to study more, your local or university library will be very helpful to you. All of my sources were found through academic research databases - such as Lexis Nexis and Ebsco-Host - that my library subscribes to.

The Problems with TANF

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, colloquially known as “welfare reform”5 brought with it Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which ended the “guaranteed entitlement”2 of earlier welfare programs to begin a system of temporary aid with a major emphasis on immediate employment in the path to self-sufficiency.4

The largest problem associated with TANF is that its own rules effectively hold recipients back from gaining a postsecondary education due to the lack of time or incentive to get a better job. The “catch-22” of choosing between a job that could potentially lead to financial independence or the benefits held in TANF leads to a sense of helplessness and a lack of empowerment.1

In Julie Altman & Gertrude Goldberg’s case study and report “Rethinking Social Work’s Role in Public Assistance,” two current TANF recipients and one former recipient were interviewed regarding their lives under the program.

Ms. C, a codename given for one of their interviewees, stated that she feels as though she “can do more and do better” than what her current job entails, and says that “it doesn’t take any skill whatsoever to do that job, and it kind of hurts.” Although Ms. C is the most well off among the three people interviewed in the study, she still has no money left over after paying all of her bills and attending community college to get a better job to fend for herself and her adolescent daughter.

Vicki Lens, in here article "TANF: What Went Wrong and What to do Next," says that the emphasis on not counting postsecondary education as part of the work quota of an already stretched single parent goes against “the single most important factor in sustaining self-sufficiency” – TANF’s stated goal – “[:] the recipient’s level of education.”4

Although TANF does not prevent the recipient from seeking higher education or vocational training, Lens says that it does make it quite difficult to do so, as recipients opt for keeping low-wage paying jobs to keep TANF’s benefits. She also states that it provides “little, if any, time for employed single mothers […] to pursue an education.” Single mothers also make up the bulk of welfare recipients, with “70 percent of TANF families headed by women."4

It hasn’t always been this hard for welfare recipients to attend postsecondary education. By the end of the old welfare system, 1995-96, “650,000 welfare recipients were enrolled in postsecondary education,” and that is only including the listings of colleges and vocational schools that kept records of students with welfare aid, which many do not.5

Charles Price said in 2005 that the 650,000 in '95-'96 has seen a drastic decline in the years following TANF’s passage, which he attributes as the cause for the decline. With the “fastest growing occupations” today requiring at least an associate’s degree,5 the system is locking out future careers for America’s already most vulnerable sub-group: “the bottom fifth of households,” which make up the majority of “former and current” welfare recipients.4

Price warns that those unable to get a postsecondary education will miss out on the “‘soft’ benefits,” such as a richer self-esteem and sense of control. Many TANF recipients need that psychological help, like Ms. A from Altman & Goldberg’s study, who has already lost one of her children to the state due to inadequate parenting.

Mrs. A had only been off crack cocaine for eighteen months, and suffers from depression. She feels as though everything overwhelms her and sees the current welfare system as “cruel,” for inevitably forcing her to get a job to support herself fully after her lifetime maximum of five years on TANF is up, even though she is battling her own demons and “unmanageable children.”1

Substance abuse is not uncommon in TANF recipients. In a 2009 study conducted by Brown & Montoya, they found that out of the 547 TANF recipients used in the study, a full 30% of them were regular heavy drug users.

The study based the ratings of the subject’s drug use on a 0 – 7 scale, zero being no history of using that particular drug, and seven meaning that the subject abused that drug twenty-eight times per week. The average number of doses per week was fourteen among the drug users in the study.

The study also found that with an increase in the amount the subject spent working, there came a decrease in the subject’s drug intake. Similarly, in Altman & Goldberg’s study, Ms. A felt “proud” and “better about” herself thanks to having work and knowing her kids got to see her responsibly going to work every morning.

The trouble, though, with the idea of self-sufficiency only through working is that it may be relatively simple to acquire a job, but maintaining that position isn’t as simple.4 Ms. A had learned that unfortunate fact just the day before her interview was conducted.1 Lens argues that the Department of Health and Human Services, DHHS, didn’t do an adequate job at researching and planning based on who their recipients are – mainly minority women – and what the “labor market is like.”4

Sexual and racial discrimination is still found in the labor market. It is unfortunate how common it is for the only jobs these minority women with little training or education can have and keep are service sector jobs. Jobs, Lens says, that they probably had before they were on welfare, and can only possibly lead them straight back toward welfare and not self-sufficiency.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC, the program in use before TANF took effect was an entitlement welfare program, which meant that the aid was not conditional or limited as TANF is.4

A huge blow to the likelihood of self-sufficiency in single mothers who must work is the loss of the “entitlement to child care” that they had under AFDC.4 TANF requires them to work the full 35 hours a week with or without child care for while they are away.4 The idea of child care, though, comes after the planning for transportation to work, which is also not guaranteed by TANF funds.4

The casework numbers for welfare services and funds have declined over the course of TANF, but Austin, et al., have attributed this not to success stories, but to the unavailability of child care for working mothers, and transportation.2 This represents a catch-22 for needy a needy parent: the choice between a gamble for independence with a good job, or keeping a low wage job to keep TANF benefits now.

This vicious cycle is a perfect illustration of what is inherently flawed about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Its push for hard work to lead the underprivileged away from welfare and into their own ‘self-sufficiency’ forgets to take into account the wall holding people back from improving their lives: a lack of education, and a lack of empowerment.


  1. Altman, J., & Goldberg, G. (2008). Rethinking Social Work’s Role in Public Assistance. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 35(4), 71-94.
  2. Austin, M., Johnson, M., Chun-Chung Chow, J., De Marco, A., & Ketch, V. (2009). Delivering Welfare-to-Work Services in County Social Service Organizations: An Exploratory Study of Staff Perspectives. Administration in Social Work, 33(1), 105-126.

  3. Brown, V., & Montoya, I. (2009). The Role of Employment in Preventing Continued Drug Use Among Welfare Recipients. Journal of Social Service Research, 35(2), 105-113.

  4. Lens, V. (2002). TANF: What Went Wrong and What to Do Next. Social Work, 47(3), 279-290.

  5. Price, C. (2005). Reforming Welfare Reform Postsecondary Education Policy: Two State Case Studies in Political Culture, Organizing, and Advocacy. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 32(3), 81-106.


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