Research Report

TANF on the Brink of Change

The District of Columbia is changing its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program to promote better long-term outcomes for families and children. The most recent change, implemented April 2018, is an end to the five-year limit for full benefits. Previously, families who received benefits received reduced cash assistance after 60 months in the program. They will now receive the full amount.

This report features the perspectives of 19 women in DC who shared their experiences raising children in poverty and receiving reduced TANF cash assistance because they had exceeded the five-year limit at the time of our January 2018 interviews. Their reflections can help develop a clearer picture of why people turn to TANF, how they experience the program, and how the program can help them support their families and their children’s futures. They can also help other jurisdictions better understand the experiences of women receiving TANF cash assistance to reshape policies, services, and practices to better meet families’ needs.

A snapshot of women’s personal reflections on TANF in DC

The women we spoke with had participated in DC’s TANF program for at least five years. Each woman’s story is unique, but together, they paint a picture of mothers wanting to support their children and offer them bright futures.

Unable to maintain stable, well-paid employment and with limited social supports, they had no choice but to turn to TANF cash assistance and other public supports. They wanted to find jobs that would offer stability and the ability to support their families without public assistance. For the most part, they felt that the employment services provided through TANF did not help them move toward this goal, although some have noticed recent program improvements.

They explained the challenges (e.g., transportation, flexible child care arrangements, and limited qualifications) that make it difficult for them to find and keep stable jobs with family-sustaining wages. They described the vital role TANF cash assistance plays in providing for their families, but they also described their often-negative experiences at TANF service centers, including hostile relationships with eligibility staff.

The women began receiving TANF before the program’s recent changes, and when we spoke with them, they were receiving reduced cash assistance because of the time limit on receiving the full benefit amount. Many of them expected that once they began receiving the full benefit amount, their families would have an easier time getting by, but they worried that the policy would change again in the future.

The DC Department of Human Services is committed to service improvements

The DC Department of Human Services (DHS), which administers TANF, has made various service improvements in the past several years, and more extensive changes are under way. Two years ago, the DHS surveyed its customers and began making changes based on their recommendations. The department shifted away from a one-size-fits-all model of service delivery to using a coaching model, developing individual plans with customers, increasing cash assistance, and improving other services.

The department is reshaping its services and changing its policies because it believes that if families are supported with more income for children, parents can focus on achieving their goals. Further, the DHS is committed to continuous improvement and has listened to and acted on the recommendations of the people who use their services.

Learn more about the experiences of D.C. mothers raising children on TANF in this blog post by Eleanor Pratt.