ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program is reaching fewer families in poverty than earlier federal assistance programs, according to a new study spanning two decades.

More folks are turning to TANF for relief during the pandemic, but Black households that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 are having more problems accessing the program, the report finds. Ife Floyd, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which released the report, said the reasons for reduced access over the years include strict work requirements and very low income levels to apply.

“And the benefits are so low that, when a person starts working, they could easily become ineligible from their earnings, even though they may not be out of poverty from their earnings,” Floyd said. “That limits a lot of the access to the program.”

She pointed out TANF benefits vary by state, and Maryland’s monthly amount of $725 is relatively high compared to the rest of the nation. But in 2019, only 17,000 Maryland families received TANF benefits, out of 70,000 families who live in poverty.

Floyd said federal programs offering cash assistance to families with children in poverty have historically discriminated against Black parents, providing lower benefits in states with higher numbers of Black children. She added racial stereotypes have long undermined federal support.

“There were these stereotypes – that’s this idea of the ‘welfare queen’ – that Black women are somehow very lazy and are just taking advantage of government assistance in order to not work,” she said. “But Black women have always had higher work rates than white women.”

The report recommends policymakers loosen some of TANF’s harsher restrictions – not cutting a family off, for instance, if one qualification isn’t met. Floyd also noted the federal grant for the program hasn’t increased since it was created in 1996.


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