TANF: What it is. What it funds. And why it matters.

TANF: What it is. What it funds. And why it matters.

It feels like Groundhog Day with the debate going on in Washington D.C. over the federal debt limit. We’ve been here before, right? While negotiations are ongoing (and could be in a more solid place, considering this was written last week), you have likely heard about some health and human service-related policies that are “on the table,” so to speak.

One of those policies is work requirements for public assistance programs.

President Biden has stated that work requirements that impact people’s health care are “off the table,” but SNAP and TANF work requirements remain part of the negotiations. If you’re thinking “don’t SNAP and TANF already have work requirements?” you’d be correct.

Briefly on SNAP…

It would take many more pages to talk about the SNAP program in depth but for a brief look, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities describes a previous debate over SNAP work requirements, which feels very familiar and provides an overview of the current work requirements for SNAP and also looks at who would be impacted by the recent proposal to “strengthen” work requirements in SNAP. All able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDS) between ages 18 and 49 are required to work at least 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits. This brief will take a closer look at TANF, because there have been many missing pieces in the conversation around changing the requirements for this program.

From Welfare to TANF

It would similarly take many more pages to offer a thorough description and assessment of TANF—oh wait, we’ve done that….in 2018 and 2021 and also in 2006 when our President and Executive Director, John Corlett examined-at the 10 year mark of welfare reform. Briefly, the shift from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, the old “welfare”) program to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program significantly changed welfare in this country. As we said in 2018, “welfare as an entitlement has ended, but the program that replaced it has so fundamentally shifted the safety net, that fewer poor families receive any cash income support from the TANF program.”

Under TANF, states’ cash assistance recipients are required to work a set number of hours per week.

Each year, Ohio is awarded $726 million from the federal government to administer the TANF program. The state couples that amount with over $400 million in maintenance of effort (MOE). This amount is codified in federal law and is tied to the amount a state spent on programs for needy families in 1994. Under TANF, states’ cash assistance recipients are required to work a set number of hours per week and at least 50 percent of the adults in the program must meet the work requirement. TANF also limits enrollment in the program to five years; Ohio has set its time limit at three years.

TANF Today

The most recent data, from March 2023, tells us that there are just over 72,000 people[1] in the state of Ohio, adults and children, receiving cash assistance, in a state of nearly 11.8 million people. This number is not reflective of the need but is reflective of the challenges with Ohio Works First or OWF, what we call the cash assistance program in Ohio. This is a program with time limits and stringent work requirements, sanctions, limited capacity to actually help families in need seek work and training opportunities, requirements to report on all work activities, all to receive about $600 a month for a family of three or about half of what a person would make working a job at minimum wage for 30 hours a week for 4 weeks. The changes on the table in D.C. are focused on the OWF portion of TANF (and the equivalent programs in other states). There are ways to strengthen the TANF program, to connect people with meaningful training and work opportunities, to help in times of most need, but none of the changes on the table in D.C. will achieve this.

TANF isn’t just a cash assistance program. Since 1996, it has increasingly funded many other vital programs which could be impacted by the overall threat to the program’s funding if states can’t meet even more stringent requirements.

For a recent look at what else we use TANF for in Ohio, the table below includes the proposed budget for TANF dollars in Ohio for the upcoming two biennia.

The TANF Services Framework: SFY= state fiscal year (July-June)

 SFY24 EstimatesSFY25 Estimates SFY26 Estimates SFY27 Estimates
TANF – Federal Block Grant$725,565,965$725,565,965$725,565,965$725,565,965
TANF – Federal Block Grant$472,449,564$453,789,046$435,093,493$291,280,665
Maintenance of Effort (MOE) Resources$453,265,343$453,265,343$451,985,314$451,985,314
TOTAL REVENUE $1,651,280,872$1,632,620,354$1,612,644,772$1,468,831,944
Publicly Funded Child Care – TANF$229,631,211$229,631,211$398,169,430$542,945,892
Publicly Funded Child Care – MOE$174,199,799$174,199,799$172,419,770$172,419,770
Local Admin & Program Funding$335,579,071$335,579,071$335,579,071$335,579,071
Ohio Works First Cash Assistance$245,055,893$245,055,893$245,055,893$245,055,893
Ohio Association of Food Banks$22,050,000$22,050,000$22,050,000$22,050,000
Job and Family Services (JFS) Administration$61,371,625$61,409,706$58,305,706$58,305,706
Child Welfare Initiatives$7,000,000$7,000,000$7,000,000$7,000,000
Non-JFS MOE Claim$93,015,259$93,015,259$93,015,259$93,015,259
Social Security Block Grant (Title XX) Transfer$66,556,596$66,556,596$66,556,596$66,556,596
Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives/ Fatherhood Commission$19,035,000$19,035,000$19,035,000$19,035,000
TOTAL EXPENSES$1,265,369,454$1,265,407,535$1,429,061,725$1,573,838,187
Estimated Underspending:$67,877,628$67,880,674$107,697,617$122,175,264
Adjusted TANF Sustainability Fund (Underspend) Balance Carry Forward:$453,789,046$435,093,493$291,280,665$17,169,021
Source: Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program Services Framework Estimates for SFY 2024-2027, Prepared February 23, 2023


The proposals on the table in D.C. won’t get us there and could harm programs across health and human services in the process.

As you can see in this program budget, the largest recipient of TANF dollars in Ohio is not cash assistance, it’s childcare, a vital work and family support. An overall reduction in TANF spending could impact childcare and any other category of expenses for programs and projects.

Recently, the American Public Human Services Association connected with stakeholders nationwide to develop a plan to modernize TANF, so that it can focus on the needs of families living in poverty and make a real difference. This is a good place to start if we’re serious about making TANF work better. The proposals on the table in D.C. won’t get us there and could harm programs across health and human services in the process.

[1] https://jfs.ohio.gov/pams/Caseload-Summary-Report-March-2023.stm