The question addressed by this report is how the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program responded to increased unemployment during the Great Recession. Enacted in 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, changing the culture of cash welfare by imposing strong work requirements backed by sanctions and a five-year time limit on benefit receipt. In response, the rolls declined in record numbers, both because people left the rolls, most of them for work, and because fewer people entered welfare. Between 1995 and 2000, welfare rolls declined by more than 55 percent nationwide, while poverty among children in single parent families and among black children, both of which groups were disproportionately represented on the TANF rolls, fell to their lowest levels ever.
However, during the Great Recession that officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, as unemployment skyrocketed, TANF performance as part of the safety net was held by many advocates, policymakers, and researchers to be inadequate. This report analyses this claim from a variety of perspectives. In the three studies report here, we examine changes in the TANF rolls in relation to two alternative measures of rising unemployment in each state and in relation to how the AFDC program responded during previous recessions. We show that the increase in the TANF rolls was greater—12 and 30 percent greater under two different methods—when examined during the unique period of rising employment in each state. We also show that TANF increased more in the recession of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-2009 than AFDC did during previous recessions. We also show, as have a number of other researchers, that the nation’s safety net as a whole performed well during the Great Recession and prevented millions of people from falling into poverty. (Edited author executive summary)