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Today's Welfare No Match for High Unemployment

Author: Sheila Zedlewski

| Posted: August 29th, 2011

When our nation’s welfare system was reformed in 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) was supposed to provide a safety net for families with kids when parents can’t find work.  But the latest data suggest that TANF isn’t filling this role in the current, prolonged downturn.  From the start of the Great Recession through 2010, the unemployment rate shot up 88 percent and the number unemployed for 6 months or more  nearly quintupled.

You’d think that the number of people receiving help from TANF would have risen too.  But TANF caseloads increased by only 14 percent. In 13 states, caseloads actually dropped.

Unemployment and ADFC/TANF Enrollment, 1979-2011

TANF

Why?

We don’t know for sure, but here are some possible explanations:

  • More people are getting unemployment benefits,  partly because so many single moms left welfare and found jobs between 1996 and 2007.
  • State TANF policies discourage people from applying for cash benefits.
  • Feeling stigmatized by welfare, fewer eligible families apply for help when they need it.

The TANF program is up for reauthorization this fall.  Although it worked well when jobs were plentiful, it should be providing more help to struggling families during periods of high unemployment.  Two ways forward are to revisit state policies that discourage TANF use and providing subsidized job and training opportunities for  unemployed TANF parents.

Filed under: Asset and debts, Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, Economic well-being, Employment and income data, Income and Benefits Policy Center, Income and Wealth, Low-Income Working Families, National (US), Poverty, Single-family finance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Tracking the economy, Unemployment insurance
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