GAO Testimony Summarizing TANF Performance

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.

The 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%.

The 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.

The 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.

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