Parents Describe TANF’s Strengths and Needed Changes in New Report on 25th Anniversary of “Welfare Reform”

A new report on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), featuring the voices of parents receiving cash assistance, finds that TANF is crucial for supporting the lowest income families in Pennsylvania, but needs a grant increase and other changes to live up to its promise.  The TANF grant amount – fixed at $403 a month for most Pennsylvania families of three – has not increased since 1990, and is now only 22% of the federal poverty level.  The report, “Meet the Need:  No Child Should Live in Deep Poverty,” was released by the Meet the Need Coalition, a group of current and former TANF participants and advocates, spearheaded by Community Legal Services, Pennsylvania Health Access Network, Black Women’s Policy Agenda, and Just Harvest.

“I only had TANF for about a year. It was just a little bit extra to help keep me on my feet, but more money would have helped me be able to stay home instead of rushing back to work when my child was still young,” said Laeisha Sewell.

TANF provides cash assistance to Pennsylvania families with the lowest incomes, filling gaps left by other subsidy programs for the families most in need of financial support.  The number of adults and children on TANF has fallen over 70% since 2007, to less than 65,000 statewide, despite the number of children in deep poverty remaining stagnant in this time.  Because of systemic racism and historic disinvestment in Black communities, TANF serves a disproportionately high percentage of Black families. Making changes to make TANF accessible and impactful will improve the well-being of all Pennsylvania children, but especially the well-being of Black and Brown children.

“TANF is a pitifully eroded support for families in need of assistance. Families can’t get by on $403 a month, and children suffer as a result, ” said Ann Sanders, Public Policy Advocate at Just Harvest in Pittsburgh.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • Increase the TANF grant amount ot 50% of the federal poverty level.
  • Improve work and training programs.
  • Allow more exceptions from the child support requirement.
  • Allow families to save.
  • Create a smooth transition to work.

“A stronger TANF program, with higher grant amounts and other changes, is crucial to improving the lives of Black women and their families in Pennsylvania,” said Rochelle Jackson, Founder and Director of the Black Women’s Policy Agenda, based in Pittsburgh.

“Our clients have told us for decades they can’t live on $403 a month, and that being forced to sue an ex for child support (as TANF requires) can alienate the other parent and make things worse for their kids.  Parents, and not the state, should decide whether to pursue child support.” said Maria Pulzetti, Staff Attorney at Community Legal Services.

“TANF is a vital program for the health of vulnerable families. Since the start of the opioid epidemic, often grandparents on fixed incomes all over the state have been caring for grandchildren and rely on this program to fill gaps. Increasing the TANF grant is a critical step to ensuring these grandchildren are healthy and safe,” said Antoinette Kraus, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.

TANF is the program that was created through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly known as “welfare reform.”  The 1996 law eliminated the prior Aid to Families with Dependent Children entitlement program and created the TANF block grant instead.  More information on the effect of the 1996 law can be found here:

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