Background on TANF

Like the Urban Partnerships Initiative, the development of this toolkit is rooted in the history of America’s welfare reform movement. Authorizing the TANF program, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was considered landmark legislation, ending welfare as an entitlement program. The new welfare policy enabled assistance to needy families and children while increasing self-sufficiency through employment. Additionally, the TANF legislation afforded localities the flexibility to design and implement programs that best served families in their communities. Block grants have few restrictions on how money must be spent at the State level, allowing States and cities more flexibility and room for innovation in the design of their programs and services. With this increased flexibility for program design and administration, States and counties across the country have experienced dramatic caseload reductions since the passage of welfare reform. The Administration for Children and Families acknowledged these successes, but realized more work was needed to refocus attention on employment goals, participation standards, and personal responsibility for moving all TANF participants toward self-sufficiency. This recognition was the foundation for the development of the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005.

DRA placed attention on employment services and engaging all customers in appropriate work activities, requiring the TANF program return to its focus to improving employment outcomes among participants. This refocusing on employment engagement is evidenced in several DRA provisions, including caseload reduction credit recalibration and changes in the requirements associated with Separate State Programs/Maintenance of Effort.1 These changes increased the effective work participation rates States must achieve.

Facing these requirements, State and county TANF agencies have explored innovative strategies for overcoming barriers to work for TANF families and improving work attachment. To help families sustain self-sufficiency, agencies must coordinate services, including child support enforcement, child care, and child welfare. With a renewed sense of urgency on the frontline because of universal engagement requirements, State and county systems are eager to learn about new and creative responses to meeting the challenge of moving TANF participants from welfare to stable employment.

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006, July). TANF interim final rule. Available: