The GAO recently released testimony, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): Update on Program Performance, summarizing
past GAO reports from 2010 to 2012. It intends to describe TANF’s
function as a cash safety net, a support for promoting employment, and a
funding source for services. The testimony proposes that TANF has
significantly shifted the emphasis of welfare towards work
participation, but not enough is known about the program’s efficacy.
testimony describes that since 1996 welfare reform, cash assistance has
dropped by half. This is in large part because of a decline in take-up
by eligible families. At the same time, child-only cases—in all,
consisting mostly of children with non-parent caregivers— increased
slightly to represent about half of the cash assistance caseload.
Additionally, a weak countercyclical response seems to be revealed by
looking specifically at the years 2008-2011, during the height of the
recession, when caseloads only increased 13%.
testimony continues to overview what is known about TANF work
participation provisions. While 50% is required, only about a third of
work-eligible TANF families are participating in an allowable activity.
This is legally possible due to various offsetting policies and funding
options and not wholly revealing failure as the requirement has brought
about a significant new programmatic emphasis on work participation.
Still, because the rate is so flexible, it is not useful for indicating
the program’s efficacy. Separately, the work participation requirement
could also work as a barrier to engaging families with complex needs.
testimony concludes with an overview of TANF’s increasing role in
funding services like child welfare, mental health, substance abuse,
pre-K, and refundable state earned income credits. Accounting for 27% of
total TANF expenditures in 1997, funding for these services now
comprise 71% of expenditures. Though critical services, little is known
about how these services are integrated into the overall TANF strategy,
let alone how much is contributed to each service. Overall, GAO
concludes that TANF is a basic safety net with significant resources,
increasingly focused on work promotion and service provision. However,
it is not clear how effective TANF is at accomplishing its stated
purpose or in catching all families in need.