Many people in the United States might assume that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program — the program created after “welfare reform” — would be an important tool to assist needy families during the COVID-19 recession. The latest analysis from the Census Bureau shows that TANF has failed once again to provide much help to the impoverished during a recession. This fact is best illustrated by examining TANF’s impact on child poverty last year.
The Census Bureau examined the impact of 13 programs on reducing child poverty during 2020. Of the 13 programs, TANF was among the weakest at reducing child poverty. (See Figure.) The Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was more than five times as effective as TANF in reducing child poverty. Unemployment Insurance was nearly seven times as effective.
TANF ranked ninth out of the 13 programs in reducing child poverty. But one could argue that even this low rank was inflated by one position. Normally the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is more effective at reducing child poverty than TANF. For example, in 2019, the NSLP was nearly four times as effective in reducing child poverty as TANF. Because schools were closed for at least part of 2020, the NSLP was weaker than normal, and it was slightly less effective than TANF.
The failure of TANF to address the needs of poor families shows that we need strong federal programs to help needy families. Too many state governments have abdicated their responsibility to craft a TANF program that works to keep children out of poverty. It is worth quoting CEPR Senior Policy Fellow Shawn Fremstad: “TANF is a failed experiment. It’s time to repeal and replace it with a real and effective social security program.”