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What GAO Found

The federal-state TANF partnership makes significant resources available to address poverty in the lives of families with children. With these resources, TANF has provided a basic safety net to many families and helped many parents step into jobs. At the same time, there are questions about the strength and breadth of the TANF safety net. Many eligible families—some of whom have very low incomes—are not receiving TANF cash assistance. Regarding TANF as a welfare-to-work program, the emphasis on work participation rates as a measure of state program performance has helped change the culture of state welfare programs to focus on moving families into employment. However, features of the work participation rates as currently implemented undercut their effectiveness as a way to encourage states to engage parents, including those difficult to serve, and help them achieve self-sufficiency. Finally, states have used TANF funds to support a variety of programs other than cash assistance as allowed by law. Yet, we do not know enough about this spending or whether this flexibility is resulting in the most efficient and effective use of funds at this time.

Why GAO Did This Study

This hearing is on combating poverty and understanding new challenges for families. The testimony focuses on the role of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant in helping low-income families with children. As you know, the federal government significantly changed federal welfare policy in 1996 when it created TANF, a $16.5 billion annual block grant provided to states to operate their own welfare programs within federal guidelines. States are also required to maintain a specified level of their own spending to receive TANF funds. Over the past 15 years, the federal government and states have spent a total of $406 billion for TANF, about 60 percent of which were federal funds. This federal-state partnership has undergone multiple program and fiscal changes, including a dramatic drop in the number of families receiving monthly cash assistance benefits, as well as two economic recessions. According to the Bureau of the Census, poverty among children fell from about 21 percent in 1995 to about 16 percent in 2000, rising again to 22 percent in 2010. Examining TANF’s past performance can help shed light on the challenges facing low-income families and the role of the federal government in combating poverty.

This testimony–based primarily on reports issued by GAO from 2010 to 2012 on TANF and related issues—will focus on TANF’s performance in three areas: (1) as a cash safety net for families in need, (2) as a welfare-to-work program that promotes employment, and (3) as a funding source for various services that address families’ needs.

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

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