Sort by

TANF: The Broken Safety Net Program

David Callahan

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned in 1996 that welfare reform was a huge gamble and that the result could be extraordinary human suffering. 

Those predictions came to seem extreme as the years passed. The boom of the late 1990s and then the credit fueled prosperity of the Bush years ensured a steady supply of low-wage jobs and, for a long time, it seemed that TANF was not the disaster many predicted.

But the main role of any welfare program should be to serve as a safety net that expands as needed in the case of economic disaster. A welfare program that can't do that is a broken program. 

But TANF didn't expand when the financial crisis hit. Food stamps and unemployments rolls expanded, but not TANF. As Jared Bernsten writes today -- and as we have observed here before -- TANF enrollment remained essentially flat even as the unemployment rate soared. The chart below says it all.

Sources: TANF data from Office of Family Assistance, SNAP data from United States Department of Agriculture, unemployment (continuing claims) and unemployment rate from Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Source: Jared Bernstein, The New York Times