August 18, 2022

Upholding Inequity: Historical Racism in the TANF Program Demonstrated by Florida’s Inadequate Cash Assistance Payment Levels

To chart an equitable course forward for all Floridians, we must first understand the journey that brought us to where we are today. The following publication is the fourth in FPI’s “Pursue Equity” series, a part of a multi-year research initiative on Florida’s historically discriminatory policies, their evolution, and their impact on all Florida communities today.


When times get tough — whether it is losing a job, suffering a health crisis, or experiencing some other unexpected setback — people rely on a broad range of support to recover. One of those supports has been the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF or cash assistance), which provides a critical safety net for families in Florida who are struggling to make ends meet.

TANF, which is funded jointly by the federal government and the state, is the only statewide cash assistance program in Florida that helps families with children. The TANF program has the potential to be a win-win for the state and Floridians. Cash assistance has been shown to improve childhood outcomes, including school performance, health, and economic well-being.

However, Florida’s TANF program is failing to live up to its potential. The Florida Legislature has not updated TANF benefit payments in the state for three decades. The maximum benefit payment for a family of three (the average size of a TANF assistance unit in Florida) has remained fixed at $303 since 1992, which is over 80 percent below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and makes it unlikely that a family can meet the basic needs of children participating in the program.

TANF allows individual states to design their own program and set the benefits levels associated with that program.  For more than three decades, this flexibility has enabled the Florida Legislature to continually shrink the state’s TANF program,  making it harder for working families to achieve the stability needed to get back on a path to prosperity. Lawmakers did this based on false racist narratives about TANF participants that continue to drive the program and keep benefits at levels that are appallingly insufficient to meet the basic needs of children in the program.  Today, Black children are more likely to live in states that have the lowest TANF payment levels, like Florida, where over 8 percent of Black children in the entire country live.

It is not too late to remake TANF into the program that it always should have been: a sturdy safety net for families to improve their children’s prospects, no matter their racial or ethnic background. To do that, Florida lawmakers must recognize that programs like TANF benefit everyone, and they must reject false narratives about TANF participants by prioritizing an overhaul of the of laws and policies that contribute to the program’s racial disparities, starting with a belated increase in benefit payments.

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Pursuing Racial & Ethnic Equity

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