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July 11, 2017

TANF at 20 in Florida: The Promise of Helping Poor Families Transition from Welfare to Work Has Not Been Fulfilled

The goal of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is to move families from dependence on government assistance to economic self-sufficiency by providing participants with temporary cash assistance for basic needs, subsidized child care and employment/employability supports. Since TANF is administered as a federal block grant program, Florida has flexibility in the allocation of funds to permissible purposes. However, this flexibility has led to the growing diversion of funds to programs and services that are outside of TANF’s core welfare reform activities, resulting in fewer resources being allocated for services that would help families become economically self-sufficient. This dynamic is important to understand as the federal government moves to reduce support for other programs meant to assist struggling families and restructure them into block grants.

1- Overview, Background and Data Sources

1.1 Overview of TANF in Florida

Congress created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 as part of a federal effort to reform welfare. This restructuring from entitlement to block grant was intended to provide a safety net for families with children in the form of temporary cash assistance to meet basic needs.  While receiving TANF assistance, recipients were expected to prepare for and seek employment with the help of local assistance.  The long-term goal was to provide supports necessary to move people from unemployment or underemployment to jobs that enable economic self-sufficiency.

More than 20 years after the implementation of welfare reform, the promises of TANF have not been fulfilled in Florida. Many families are still struggling to make ends meet. The unemployment rate, which measures the number of people who are able, willing and actively looking for work but who have not found a job, has been above the nation’s average for the last several years, despite a declining trend.

As of May 2017, the state unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent, equal to the national average, reflecting the state’s growing economy.  However, since the economic recovery has been uneven, millions of Floridians are still struggling to afford basic needs. TANF was supposed to provide relief to struggling families. The program has failed in delivering its much-touted promise of transitioning families from welfare to work.

Currently in Florida:

  • The state spends a substantial share of its federal and state TANF money on child welfare services, which is not one of the core purposes of the program, leaving fewer resources for safety net support for needy families in the form of cash assistance and for work and work support activities.
  • TANF cash assistance reached only 11 of every 100 eligible families in 2015, compared to 55 of every 100 eligible families in 1996. This is below the national average, which was 23 of every 100 eligible families in 2015 and 68 of every 100 eligible families in 1996.
  • As of 2015, only 12.3 percent of TANF cases result in employment. Florida has never spent very much of its federal and state TANF funds on work and work-related activities. Thus, welfare reform’s promise of a welfare-to-work transition has not been fulfilled.
  • TANF program eligibility requirements are very restrictive, resulting in a declining caseload.
  • TANF block grant funding has not been adjusted for inflation by the federal government since inception, resulting in a reduction of approximately one-third of the assistance’s value.

Florida’s TANF program should better support the grant’s core purpose, moving families from dependence to employment and providing needed cash assistance in the meantime. To the extent that the state allocates its TANF funds strategically to support Floridians as they transition from unemployment and underemployment to self-sufficiency, the state’s investment in its people repays itself multifold over a lifetime of economic contributions.

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