TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is a federal cash assistance program for low income families with children that provides for basic needs. Families who qualify receive money on a debit-like card that they can use to help cover their monthly expenses, like food, rent, clothing, and transportation.

TANF’s History

In 1911, a version of TANF was piloted in Jackson County, Missouri as a widow’s pension law by members of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, now known as Empower Missouri. The concept of direct transfers spread and the national program called Aid to Dependent Children was passed in 1935. In 1996, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was replaced by TANF, and significant changes were made to how the program was run.

How the TANF program works

The Federal government provides a grant to each state to run their TANF program. With the money that is received, the states have a lot of flexibility on how the program should operate. Each state can decide on the design of the program, the type and amount of assistance, the range of other services to be provided, and the rules for determining who is eligible for benefits.

Less money and less help

In Missouri, the amount of money that an eligible family can receive on TANF has not risen since 1991. For example, the most a mother with 2 children can receive is $292 per month, which is 16% of the federal poverty level. Additionally, because of work requirements and strict lifetime time limits, fewer people are qualifying for and using the program. In 2017, for every 100 low-income families with children in Missouri, only 14 received TANF cash assistance. This is down from 59 families out of 100 in 2001. 

In addition to the low benefit level and strict requirements to qualify for cash assistance, Federal guidelines say states can use some of its TANF funds for things besides core activities like the cash assistance, work activities and child care. For example, in 2017, Missouri spent about $356 million in federal and state funds under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, with only 37 percent of these funds going toward core activities.

Opportunities for advocacy

There are many opportunities for advocacy to strengthen and enhance the power of this program here in Missouri. To learn how to be more involved, contact Christine Woody at christine@empowermisouri.org or to learn more about the TANF program and possible ways to strengthen at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) website. CBPP is a national partner of Empower Missouri who works closely with us on advocacy for low-income families in the state.

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