How To Get Temporary Assistance For Needy Families

Understanding TANF

Back in 1996, congress made the TANF block grant. They were able to do this through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The government wanted to shift their attention to dealing with welfare in America. This act took the spot of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) legislation that was in place. AFDC had been supporting Americans since 1935. TANF was a fresh face in the world of assistance.

Through the TANF program, the United States federal government gives block grants to states. The states then use these funds for their own programs. If a state wants to receive federal funds, they have to spend their own money on assistance for qualifying families. The criteria for what defines a qualifying family depends on the state. If a state does not use their own money they will deal with hefty fines. This guideline for states is called the “Maintenance of Effort” (MOE) requirement. Just as TANF replaced AFDC, MOE replaced the state match that AFDC had in place.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act also detailed goals of the program:

  • First Goal: Help families in need so that children can receive care in a familiar home like their own home or in the home of a relative.
  • Second Goal: Promote employment and marriage to reduce the dependency of qualifying parents.
  • Third Goal: Reduce pregnancies between unmarried people.
  • Fourth Goal: Promote two-parent families.

Assistance with Money and Eligibility 

States have the power to control who qualifies to get TANF assistance. Since the funds that states receive from TANF can go towards a variety of programs, states can set a variety of eligibility requirements. An example of this would be for who receives actual cash assistance. A family that is very low income may be more qualified to receive cash assistance. However, a family that has more income may be more qualified to receive a different form of assistance. Instead, a higher income family may be able to receive transportation assistance. It depends on the state and the program.

Even though states can set the qualifying criteria for families, the federal government still has set some of their own guidelines. These are:

  • Time Limits: States do have the ability to set time limits on their policies. However, the federal government does not allow funds to continue past 60 months for a family with an adult that receives the assistance. If a state wants to go past the 60-month limit then they can only do so under certain conditions. They can only go past the limit for up to 20% of their caseload. This is based on the level of hardship. It is important to note that families with no adult to receive benefits, or families that get their assistance from MOE funds of the state do not have a time limit set by the government.

The time limits can even be shorter than 60 months, if the state so chooses. States can also detail any exceptions to the guidelines if a family meets specific requirements.

  • Immigration Status: Even if you are a legal immigrant, federal guidelines keep states from using TANF funds to assist you. You must be in the United States for a minimum of five years before you can qualify. This condition doesn’t just prevent cash assistance from TANF funds. It prevents all TANF funded assistance like job preparation, child services, and more. Until you are a legal immigrant within America for 5 years, you will not be eligible to receive TANF. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for any TANF help. However, a child that is an American citizen could still qualify even if their parents are not citizens and/or don’t have a valid immigration status. States have the option to use MOE funds towards legal immigrants that do not qualify for TANF. Some do, but a lot of states do not do this.

Besides federal guidelines in place, there are other obstacles that families face when receiving TANF. Some of these obstacles include:

  • Family Limits: If a family has another child while they are receiving TANF benefits then they could face penalties. Not every state has this limitation but it is important to know that some states still do.
  • Drug Tests: Parents that are currently receiving TANF benefits, and parents that are in the application process have to go through chemical drug testing. This is usually to look for illegal substance use. If a parent cannot handle this policy then they face denial for benefits for a period of time.
  • Felony Ban for Drug offenses: The law that created TANF detailed a ban on benefits indefinitely if a person has a felony drug conviction. States can update this ban if they want. Some states have updated their bans to place barriers on TANF recipients with a drug felony while others have kept the strict ban in place.
  • Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) Card Limits: TANF benefits are delivered through an EBT card. The federal government does not allow the use of EBT cards in specific buildings like casinos, other gambling venues, and liquor stores. States can also decide to add to the list of establishments and place more restrictions like at amusement parks, for tobacco products, and other goods.

Work Requirements of TANF

States also make sure that TANF recipients are a part of work activities. It is required that states establish penalties if a person does not meet the requirements. These penalties could be reducing the amount of benefits that a person will receive or stopping benefits all together. Each state can have their own rules when it comes to dealing with penalties. A lot of the time you will see states choose penalties that affect the whole family. If a parent doesn’t meet the work requirements then everyone in the family will be affected.

Policy guidelines are up to states as well. The specifics of what a recipient will have to do is different depending on the area. The federal government has TANF work participation rates. These rates are what states usually choose to model their policies on.

50% of families that receive TANF assistance have to work at least 30 hours a week. It is only 20 hours if a family is a single parent who has a child under the age of 6 years old. This is the goal for states if they want to meet the federal work rate. 90% of families that have two parent households should work around 35 hours a week. The government offered incentives for states to meet their specified work rates. “Caseload reduction credits” are provided to states that have a caseload that has decreased since 2005.

Has TANF Worked?

There is a bit of a debate around how beneficial TANF actually is. The idea of TANF makes sense, however the execution can be labelled as questionable. Originally AFDC did more when it came to reducing poverty and hardship. Due to the range of variety between states, there are a lot of disparities. Another issue with TANF is with their work programs. Oftentimes, parents are still unable to secure jobs that can get their family out of the cycle of poverty.

Since this program was in response to the welfare issue of America, there were a lot of declines in families getting direct money assistance. TANF also had to deal with the issue of too much demand and not enough supply. The national caseload of TANF decreased by 76%. Even though this number sounds good, it doesn’t reflect the decrease in poverty. The amount of families in poverty did not decrease by 76%, only the national caseload did.

It is true that some families benefit from TANF. Some will do their assistance and get to work to get out of poverty. Sadly, a lot of other families are no longer eligible due to time limits or penalties for failing to comply with TANF guidelines. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) research shows that states issue penalties in wrong instances. Oftentimes they are given to parents that are facing hardships, not parents who don’t care about the program. Individuals that are dealing with domestic violence, a low amount of schooling, escaping domestic violence, limited job experience could all face penalties of getting their TANF benefits taken away. Other issues that TANF parents may deal with include a lack of access to child care and transportation support.


Even though TANF may have some room for improvement, it still can help those in need. One advantage of TANF is the fact that it is free to apply. You should contact your local state assistance office in order to see what you need to submit an application.

Questions Surrounding TANF

What Other Programs are Available for Families in Need?

TANF is just one benefit that Americans can use. There are many different programs and assistance options available! Some of these options are:

  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Head Start
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Community Service Block Grant (CSBG)

These programs all aim to help qualifying families in different ways. If you want additional information you can contact your local state’s assistance office. Here they can direct you to where you need to go or provide you information about programs.

You also may have assistance options from charities or other local organizations.

What are Exceptions to the 60 Month Time Limit for TANF Assistance?

Exceptions can vary by state. That is why it is important to make sure you understand the guidelines for the TANF program in your area. For example, in Illinois some cases where you can get more than the 60 month limit are:

  • Pending SSI application.
  • Deemed disabled.
  • Determined as unable to work the required amount of hours due to a health condition.
  • Having a disabled child under the age of 21 who has been approved for a care waiver.

There are other situations that can extend the 60 month time limit, it just depends on where you will receive assistance.

I was Denied TANF Benefits, What Now?

Local and state agencies are the ones who decide the qualifications and policies around their TANF programs. If you were denied, you have the right to file an appeal. The process of appeals can also vary by state. For the best source of information, you should contact your State TANF Director’s Office. Here they can answer your questions and provide you more clarity.

Where Should I Apply for TANF Benefits?

You can submit an application at your local welfare office. You can find information online about your local office’s information.

How Can TANF Help with COVID-19?

The Coronavirus pandemic hit Americans in many different ways. A lot of people were facing issues from unemployment, eviction, and more. The government saw how people were struggling and did what they could to provide assistance. Some of that assistance was the Pandemic TANF Act.

The goal of this act was to deal with the needs facing poor families for both the short-term and the long-term. The act temporarily restricts states from imposing penalties on families that have been badly affected by the pandemic. States will also not have to deal with fines if they do not meet the TANF work participation rates, do not comply with other requirements, and if they provide assistance for over 5 years.

These benefits are only meant for those who have had to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty line.