Was the TANF Welfare Program’s Response to the Great Recession Adequate?

“It is fortunate that a major feature of American social policy is a series of programs, often referred to as the safety net, that are designed to provide people with cash and other benefits when they fall on hard times—which they are more likely to do during a recession,” write the authors of a new report on the response of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—the major federal welfare program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996—to the Great Recession that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009.

In their report, “The Responsiveness of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program during the Great Recession,” Ron Haskins, Vicky Albert, and Kimberly Howard write that “All in all, we conclude that the American system of balancing work requirements and welfare benefits worked fairly well, even during the most severe recession since the Depression of the 1930s.”

Their report is based on three studies: (1) an examination of the changes in the TANF rolls compared to changes in AFDC rolls during previous recessions, plus changes in TANF rolls in relation to rising unemployment state-by-state; (2) a review of data on single mothers’ likelihood to receive TANF benefits during the 2001 and 2007 recessions, their receipt of other program benefits, and what actions single mothers took to deal with the recession; and (3) interviews with 44 directors of state TANF programs to determine their state’s response.

“An important question” noted by the authors at the outset “is whether the response of the nation’s safety net program in general and the TANF program in particular was commensurate with the challenge posed by the huge level of unemployment during and following the Great Recession.”

Some Results of the TANF Study

Haskins, Albert, and Howard arrived at a number of conclusions from the TANF/AFDC study, including:

  • TANF rolls increased more in the 2001 recession and the 2007 Great Recession than did AFDC during previous, pre-welfare reform (1996) recessions.
  • The increase in TANF rolls was greater during the period of rising unemployment in each state, which did not coincide exactly with the dates of the Great Recession, than during the official recession period nationally.
  • The “nation’s safety net as a whole performed well during the Great Recession and prevented millions of people from falling into poverty.”

“The nation experienced 51 different recessions and 51 different responses by the TANF program to the recession,” they write. “But the key point is that measuring the rise of the TANF caseload in response to the unique increase in unemployment in each state reveals TANF to have been more responsive to the recession.”

Some Results of the Single Mothers Study

  • Compared with the 1990 recession before welfare reform, “single mothers were less likely to receive benefits from the TANF program during the 2001 and 2007 recessions.”
  • Single mothers were more likely to receive other “safety net” help such as Unemployment Compensation, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and child care, school lunch and breakfast, and other benefits for their children.
  • In all the 1990, 2001, and 2007 recessions, “single mothers took action on their own” by finding jobs, living with family, and other ways to “weather the recession.”
  • Based on income, “poverty among single mothers and their children was lower during the Great Recession than during the recession of 1990.”

Given the array of available benefits, the authors conclude that:

a mother with two children earning even as little as $11,000 per year could and still can escape poverty, as measured by income that includes non-cash benefits and tax credits, because of the generosity of these benefits. In our view, the combination of strong work requirements and generous work support benefits is a reasonable policy, despite the fact that fewer mothers receive TANF now than in the past.

Some Results of the TANF Directors Study

“Arguably the people who know the most about the goals and operation of state TANF programs and how the programs responded to the recession are the state TANF directors,” write Haskins, Albert, and Howard. “They were, after all, the point persons for state TANF programs before and during the Great Recession. Interviews with TANF directors can provide an insider’s view of the TANF issues that we have so far analyzed from the outside.” Some of their conclusions from these interviews include:

  • Most states did not struggle to pay for growing TANF rolls during the Great Recession.
  • Most state directors considered their state’s response to the recession “as adequate or better.”
  • The directors had suggestions for improving the TANF program, including having more flexibility in work participation rates, gaining access to the Contingency Fund, and placing greater emphasis on job training.

Some Policy Recommendations

Although the authors believe that the TANF program worked well, especially in conjunction with other safety net programs, they suggest some potential reforms:

  • TANF allows vocational training to count toward states fulfilling their work requirement, but only a maximum of 30 percent of the work requirement can be fulfilled by TANF recipients in education or training. In times of high unemployment, Congress could raise the percentage limit from 30 to 40 or even 50 percent when unemployment reaches some specified level in the state, given that most experts believe the unemployed should expand their skills through job training during recessions.
  • Congress should consider changing the 12-week limit on job search during periods of high unemployment to as much as six months, given that the average period of search before finding a job increases sharply during periods of high unemployment.

Download and read the full report for complete methodology, analysis, and data.