Temporary Assistance Opportunity: TANF

It’s no secret that the economy is not in its best shape ever. Many folks out there are struggling to make ends meet. The federal government actually has plenty of programs to help those who struggle financially. These assistance programs can come in a wide variety of forms. Government assistance programs can help Americans (and eligible immigrants) with housing, education, healthcare, and more. It can be quite confusing once you start looking into what programs you should apply for and which you actually qualify for. Luckily, the government did that too. There’s this website called Benefits.gov. As the name says, the website focuses on providing information on most, if not all government benefit programs. It also does this neat thing where it asks you a few simple questions to help you narrow down the programs you qualify for.  Benefit Finder is the name of that function.

What Is TANF?

For this article, we’re looking into one specific government assistance program. This program goes by the name of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF for short. The federal government created the TANF program but state governments are responsible for operating it. According to the government website, TANF “provides approximately $16.5 billion to states, the District of Columbia, and US territories (Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico).  Federally-recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native organizations may offer TANF through the tribal TANF program.”

As stated before,  state governments are responsible for operating TANF. That means each state government decides on the extent of benefits provided to beneficiaries, as well as the qualifications required to be eligible for the program. The idea behind TANF is to assist low-income families with children to achieve self-sufficiency. In simpler words, TANF aims to help families get back on their feet and be able to stay stable in every way without the need for help from others.

How TANF works

Alright, so let’s break down how TANF works exactly. To make things clear, the federal government won’t just give cash handouts to low-income families with children. State governments will instead use their TANF grants to give cash assistance to those families. That grant fund will also go towards providing a wide range of services that are designed to help achieve the self-sufficiency we mentioned earlier. The main goals of TANF can be summarized in the following 4 points:

  • Help children grow up in their own homes or in the homes of their relatives. To achieve that assistance is provided to needy families.
  • Put an end to the parents’ reliance on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.
  • Reduce the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • Push forward the development and stability of two-parent families

How to Apply For Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Now that we introduced the program and what its purposes are, let’s look at how to apply for it. To start the process, you should contact your local state’s TANF office or Social Services office. We recommend you take the time to read about the program before actually applying, to avoid any misunderstandings or delays. Luckily, the application is for free, so it wouldn’t hurt to check it out either way.

Let’s Talk About Eligibility For TANF

As you’ve probably read above, the federal government created TANF, but state governments run it. That means your local state government takes all decisions regarding benefits and qualifications for TANF. Subsequently, that means that qualification for TANF may vary from one state to another. However, one thing’s for certain. Low-income families with children are the main focus of this program. So, as a general rule of thumb, there are 2 criteria you must satisfy to get TANF benefits:

  • The program will only serve low-income families.
  • In most cases, the family will need to include one or more children/dependents under the age of 18.

Since there’s a limited amount of funding assigned to each state through TANF, the government needs to make sure the right people receive the benefits. The federal government also needs to make sure the financial assistance is supporting the development of family households. That’s why there’s also criteria that might disqualify applicants from being able to receive benefits through TANF. But again, it varies by state.

TANF Work Restrictions

TANF is a work program. That means the program helps its applicants find well-paid jobs and works on improving their skills in the meantime. That’s why applicants who are able but refuse to work might be unqualified to receive TANF benefits.

While working, or trying to work is an essential part of receiving your TANF benefits, there are some exceptions. Some states have created scenarios in which applicants can receive TANF benefits while not working. For example, in Pennsylvania a person can be exempt from the work condition under the following circumstances:

  • If the applicant is taking care of a child that is one year old or younger
  • Individuals under 22 years old if they are in school
  • Applicants that are taking care of dependents that have a disability

What Are TANF Work Requirements?

Let’s go back to what we talked about earlier. The federal government gives TANF funds to state governments. Then, the state governments will decide which families to help and how to help them. But, the federal government also created TANF to achieve certain goals. It seems most goals revolve around maintaining families with children and working parents. That’s why state governments must meet Work Participation Rates (WPR) goals or else face penalties.

WPR measures the amount of work-eligible beneficiaries through TANF. There are 2 measures for WPR, an all-families rate, and a two-parent families rate. A state needs to have at least 50% of families receiving TANF benefits to be working for at least 30 hours a week. Single parents with children under the age of 6 are expected to work at least 20 hours a week.

The second WPR measure is the two-parent families rate. Families with two parents are expected to work at least 35 hours a week. Every state needs to achieve a 90% two-parent families work rate to maintain its TANF funding.

Things can be a little confusing when we start to look into what counts as “working hours.” There are supposed to be 12 categories of work, according to a law established in 1996. There’s a limit to how many hours can be attributed to each category. For example, you can only count a certain amount of hours searching for jobs as “activity hours.” Also, participation in education and training activities often cannot count as a full-time activity.

TANF Sanctions

It’s pretty clear by now that a TANF beneficiary needs to work to receive TANF benefits. That’s why in some cases, the federal government might force a state to cut off the benefits from beneficiaries who refuse to work, at least without a good reason. The problem is that most states resort to “full family sanctions.” That means if the parent refuses to work, the whole family loses its TANF benefits.


If you’re feeling like money is getting tight and things are getting more and more expensive every day, then you’re definitely not alone. The economy has been struggling recently. Some people may be able to receive loans from private lenders, but others may not have good enough credit scores.

The government recognizes the financial struggle many Americans go through every day. That’s why the federal government created plenty of assistance programs that can step in and help families and individuals get back on their feet. A great way to find out about those programs is to visit Benefits.gov and learn more.

We talked a lot about TANF, what it’s all about, how to apply for it, and how to be eligible. It’s important to contact your local social services office and learn all about TANF before applying. If you’re ready, contact your local social services office and start the application, it’s for free!

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