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Waivers Related to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant

GAO-12-1028R Published: Sep 19, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2012.
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What GAO Found

In response to a Congressional request for information on waivers related to TANF, we addressed the following questions:

  1. Since TANF was created in 1996, has HHS granted any TANF waivers or previously indicated it has the authority to waive TANF work requirements?

Since the creation of TANF, HHS has not granted any section 1115 waivers related to TANF. Many states received section 1115 waivers under AFDC, and they were allowed to continue these until their expiration, the last of which expired in 2007. No provision in law allowed these AFDC waivers to be extended.

  1. Have any states requested waivers of TANF work requirements or any other provision of TANF since 1996?

In the 16 years since TANF was created, several states have expressed interest in TANF waivers. Specifically, from 2000 through 2009, evidence shows that five states asked HHS about the availability of waivers under TANF. Generally, states were not asking for waivers to test new approaches through experimental, pilot, or demonstration projects, which would be necessary in order to get a waiver under section 1115; instead, they were asking to be excused from specific requirements.

In addition to responding directly to individual states about waiver issues, HHS discussed these issues when it provided general information to help answer states' questions about TANF under disaster conditions. Two TANF policy documents issued by HHS in 2005 and 2007 discussed various aspects of administering TANF for families affected by disasters, including, for example, application procedures and work requirements. In these documents, HHS stated that all applicable programmatic requirements apply to a family that is provided TANF-funded cash assistance, and the Department does not have authority to waive any of the provisions. HHS also discussed certain flexibilities allowed under TANF that states might use to assist these families. States also expressed their interest in waivers under TANF and other related programs in a 2005 letter to the Congress on TANF reauthorization. Specifically, 28 states expressed support for a Senate reauthorization bill that included increased waiver authority to coordinate across multiple programs serving low-income families, including TANF, as well as certain amendments to TANF work requirements. However, when TANF was reauthorized through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, this waiver authority was not included in the act. In 2011, some states expressed interest in TANF waivers when HHS solicited ideas on areas in which increased administrative flexibility could lead to improved TANF outcomes. Specifically, HHS held conversations with TANF officials from all states in response to the President's February 2011 Memorandum directing executive agencies to work closely with state, local, and tribal governments to identify administrative, regulatory, and legislative barriers in federally funded programs that prevent the efficient use of tax dollars to achieve results for constituents. Following these conversations, HHS documents show that six states expressed interest in TANF waivers, with five of those states specifically indicating their interest in waivers related to TANF work requirements, and the sixth asking about TANF waivers in general. In response, HHS officials generally indicated that the Department was in the process of reviewing its TANF waiver authority. Since HHS issued the July 12, 2012 Information Memorandum indicating the Secretary's willingness to exercise section 1115 waiver authority related to TANF work requirements, HHS documents show that eight states have expressed interest in pursuing these waivers. As of September 6, 2012, no state had formally submitted a request for a waiver related to TANF work requirements to HHS.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provides federal funding to states for both traditional welfare cash assistance as well as a variety of other benefits and services to meet the needs of low-income families and children. In December 2011, 1.9 million low-income families nationwide received cash assistance through states' TANF programs. While states have some flexibility in implementing and administering their state TANF programs, there are numerous federal requirements and guidelines that states must meet. For example, under section 402 of the Social Security Act, in order to be eligible to receive TANF funds, a state must submit to HHS a written plan outlining, among other things, how it will implement various aspects of its TANF program. More specifically, under section 402(a)(1)(A)(iii) of the Social Security Act, the written plan must outline how the state will ensure that TANF recipients engage in work activities. Under section 407 of the Social Security Act, states must also ensure that a specified percentage of their TANF recipients engage in work activities as defined by federal law. Compared with its predecessor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), TANF increased the percentage of welfare recipients expected to prepare for work, imposed stronger sanctions against individuals who did not participate as required by states, and placed time limits on the receipt of cash assistance for many TANF recipients, among other changes.

In its July 12, 2012, Information Memorandum, HHS notified states of HHS' willingness to exercise its waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act. Under section 1115, HHS has the authority to waive compliance with the requirements of section 402 in the case of experimental, pilot, or demonstration projects which the Secretary determines are likely to assist in promoting the objectives of TANF. In its Information Memorandum, HHS asserted that it has the authority to waive the requirement in section 402(a)(1)(A)(iii) and authorize states to "test approaches and methods other than those set forth in section 407," including definitions of work activities and the calculation of participation rates. HHS informed states that it would use this waiver authority to allow states to test various strategies, policies, and procedures designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families. The Information Memorandum sets forth requirements that must be met for a waiver request to be considered by HHS, including an evaluation plan, a set of performance measures that states will track to monitor ongoing performance and outcomes, and a budget including the costs of program evaluation. In addition, the Information Memorandum provides that states must seek public input on the proposal prior to approval by HHS.

In response to your request, we are providing information on any waivers related to TANF.

For more information, contact Kay E. Brown at (202) 512-7215 or

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