Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health


Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—commonly referred to as “welfare” – provides monthly cash benefits to very poor families. One of the main goals of TANF is to transition adult recipients to employment, but those who exit welfare typically earn poverty-level wages – that is, less than $9 or $10 an hour.

The federal government sets the program’s basic rules, but states set income eligibility limits and benefit levels. More than a third of the states have income limits of less than half the federal poverty level. Although benefit levels vary considerably, a single-parent family of three typically receives only a couple hundred dollars a month.

In 1996, welfare reform dramatically altered the rules for receiving assistance. Since then, caseloads have been cut by two-thirds. Less than one fifth of poor children – about 3.1 million – benefit from TANF, even though the number of children living in poverty has increased by 26 percent since 2006.

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