Oct 17, 2023
The United States government created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program with a simple purpose: to provide funds to various states and territories to offer financial assistance to struggling families.
This assistance typically comes through state-sponsored programs. However, the nature of those programs (and the distribution of funds) varies between states.
What Is TANF?
TANF started as an attempt to “end welfare as we know it.” The program is a block grant delivered to states and territories under the auspices of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
Under this act, each state receives a block grant; a set amount of money to distribute through programs that the state creates. States receive at least a portion of the grant regardless of how much they spend on state programs.
It’s here that TANF differs from its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Under AFDC, the U.S. government essentially matched the funds a state contributed to its family-aid programs. Every dollar spent meant a dollar from the government, though this approach had the potential to create problems. For instance, a state may choose to invest nothing into a program, meaning it also received no funds under AFDC.
TANF solves that problem by ensuring each state receives money regardless of how much the state invests into its benefits programs.
However, there are caveats to receiving this money. For one, the state must commit to spending the funds on a program designed to achieve at least one of TANF’s purposes, such as:
– Assist families in need to ensure children stay in their homes
– Lower instances of pregnancies that occur out of wedlock
– Offer job preparation, work, or routes to employment that lower dependence on other government benefit programs
– Promote the creation and continuation of two-parent households
Each state must also spend at least 80% of the AFDC funds provided to them in 1994, though this requirement may lower to 75% if the state meets certain goals related to work participation. So, there’s still an obligation to use state funds to receive TANF funding. That obligation is simply lower than it was under the AFDC.
Nevertheless, TANF programs still operate at the state level. This can result in confusion, especially if a state renames its program or distributes its TANF funding across multiple programs. A state may also set further eligibility requirements based on the programs it implements.
Eligibility Requirements For TANF
TANF eligibility requirements seem simple at first glance. You may be eligible if you’re a United States citizen, qualified alien, or legal alien who meets at least one of the following criteria:
– You’re either unemployed or underemployed.
– You have a low income.
– You have a child aged 18 or younger.
– You’re 18 or younger and yet classed as the head of your household.
– You’re pregnant.
The funds you’ll receive through the program should cover daily essentials. These include food, housing, and energy, though they can extend to childcare and training for new jobs.
Did you know? The Internal Revenue Service defines an “alien” as any individual who isn’t a United States citizen or national. Legal aliens are people who’ve immigrated to the United States legally (i.e., they have green cards). Qualified aliens are refugees and people who’ve received asylum from the United States, among other circumstances.
State-Run Programs and Extra Eligibility Requirements
While TANF eligibility requirements on a national level are simple, complications can occur as each state has the freedom to name and run its TANF programs as it sees fit.
Florida offers a good example. It calls its TANF program Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) and has many rules in place that may limit your ability to claim.
For instance, time limits apply that only allow you to claim TCA for a cumulative total of 48 months. Though this limitation prevents abuse of the TANF system, it could harm those who experience extended periods of need.
The TCA program also requires your household income to be no more than 185% of the Federal Poverty Level. As of 2023, this stands at $24,860 for a family of three. Thus, if a family of three earns more than $45,991 per year in Florida, it isn’t eligible for TCA, and thus not eligible for TANF aid.
The existence of these extra restrictions, combined with the complications of diverting TANF funds to state-level programs, often makes the national eligibility requirements a baseline. You’ll likely need to meet further requirements to receive funds.
How to Apply for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families
The Benefits.gov website, which contains much of the basic information about TANF programs, attempts to simplify the application process. But at the very least, it can help you to check if you meet the basic eligibility requirements via its online checker.
The tool asks questions about you, your family, your employment, and your income to determine if you’re likely to be eligible (or ineligible) for TANF funding.
Once you’re confident that you meet basic eligibility requirements, you can move on to applying at the state level. Staying with the Florida example of TCA, you have multiple options for applying:
– Applying directly through Florida’s “Access Florida” portal
– Visiting a customer service center that the Department of Children and Families operates
– Applying via one of the Department of Children and Families community partners
– Downloading a paper form and sending it to ACCESS Central Mail Center, P.O. Box 1770, Ocala, FL, 34478-1770.
Note that these instructions only cover Florida.
Every state has its own application process, as well as its own TANF-funded programs, each of which has separate eligibility requirements. Still, most TANF-funded programs give you the option of applying online or via mail, making the program application process accessible to all.
Pro Tip: You can find detailed contact information for every TANF program by state on the Office of Family Assistance website. The site contains an interactive map you can use to pull up your state’s TANF program’s name and address, plus a text list that serves the same purpose.
Tribal TANF Programs
TANF isn’t restricted solely to states. Any Native American tribe recognized by the federal government can also apply for funding to operate their own TANF programs. This right is protected under the Social Security Act, and there are currently 75 Tribal TANF programs in operation.
Functionally, these programs operate the same way as state-wide programs. The tribe sets up a financial assistance program, often under its own name. However, the tribe must submit a three-year TANF plan for review and be approved by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
In other words, a Native American tribe can’t simply start an assistance program and automatically expect to receive funding in the same way that states receive funds.
TANF: A Program Designed for Those in Need
With 11.6% of Americans living in poverty (per the 2023 figures from the United States Census Bureau), the need for programs like TANF is obvious. Needy families need more money to survive, especially when inflation and higher interest rates increase the cost of living.
TANF provides for these families in several ways. Beyond the obvious monetary benefits, TANF-approved programs often serve educational purposes to reduce pregnancy rates and strengthen families.
Nevertheless, that help comes with conditions.
TANF’s four purposes are noble but also restrictive. They’re focused primarily on helping needy families, though the purposes are so open to interpretation that states have multiple options when creating their own programs.
For instance, some states may choose to promote sex education while others opt for abstinence policies, both of which could fall under the umbrella of TANF’s purpose to reduce teenage pregnancy.
Finally, you must apply at the state level if you believe you’re eligible for TANF funding. That creates problems too, especially if your state’s TANF program comes with extra restrictions. But even with these issues, TANF is generally a positive program designed to help those experiencing poverty.