Making Cash Policies Work for Families: Aditi Shrivastava, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

“This is a big moment. Families absolutely should be getting more support than they’re getting right now, and policymakers are talking about doing things that might actually make that possible.”

Aditi Shrivastava, Deputy Director of Income Security at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., analyzes federal policy around family income support programs and provides technical assistance to state advocates working to strengthen cash assistance to families. The biggest source of cash assistance to families in every state is the federal TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program, known as “welfare” or “public benefits.” Here, Aditi explains recent federal and state efforts to reform TANF to better serve low-income families—and the role that families and advocates can make in increasing family support.

Q: What do you see going on with cash assistance across the country?

A: Families who are experiencing poverty are not receiving the support that they need. What we have in place is not sufficient.

At the same time, there’s movement happening. For so long, the narrative on TANF has been that it’s broken, it’s not fixable. But there’s an opportunity right now that there maybe hasn’t been in quite a long time. 

During the pandemic, government checks were sent out and the impacts of these programs were measured so we know how much of a difference giving cash to families can make. We saw almost an alternate universe become possible. 

Guaranteed income pilots happening across the country also are building up the evidence base of being able to say more and more unequivocally, “Hey, if we give families the cash they need, this is how well they do.” They add to making the case for why cash works. 

This is a big moment. Families absolutely should be getting more support than they’re getting right now, and policymakers are talking about doing things that might actually make that possible.

Q: What does TANF do that is distinct from other forms of economic support?

A: TANF is targeted to the lowest income families. It’s also cash. It was famously rapped about that SNAP doesn’t buy diapers, and families that receive rental assistance can only spend that money towards rent. When families receive cash assistance, they actually have the ability to choose for themselves what the best way is to spend that money. 

Another thing that sets it apart is that TANF is monthly ongoing payments. Tax credits, for the most part, only come once a year. It’s not that they’re not helpful, but families have ongoing needs. 

Families really need all of the supports. An expanded child tax credit helps all families, and yet many families still have a need for TANF cash assistance and for nutrition assistance through SNAP or WIC benefits. All of these programs can be strengthened and improved so that they’re better serving families.

Q: What are some recent shifts at the federal level relating to TANF? 

A: During the pandemic, TANF got an additional $1 billion that was split up amongst all states. That was the first movement in TANF in quite a while. And just in the last three years, we’ve seen almost half of states make some sort of change in their TANF program that is making a difference and pushing towards positive change, such as raising the benefit amount. 

Then, in 2023, the federal Office of Family Assistance (OFA) issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” which explained possible changes to TANF and allowed the public to comment. If passed, these rules would encourage states to focus more of their TANF spending on low-income families. Holistically, everything that OFA is recommending would encourage states to spend more money to help families. 

Also, 9% of TANF dollars nationwide are spent on child welfare. These rules would ensure that, if states are using TANF for child welfare, it is aligned with TANF’s core purposes, including keeping children in their own homes. States would really have to make the case for whether their child welfare funding is actually within TANF’s core purposes. 

OFA is also going to allow five states to participate in a pilot to test out further changes. One of the most exciting things is that this pilot will let states focus on outcomes for families—what happens to them when they leave TANF, including measures of family well-being—instead of just focusing on whether they are participating in some sort of work activity when they are in the program. Alongside that pilot, all states will also begin to measure work-related outcomes after exiting TANF. That matters because, if TANF is supposed to be helping families become self-sufficient, this would shift state responsibility in how they serve participants. 

We are definitely looking at this as a moment where people who care about families and families themselves can actually shape and encourage TANF to move into a direction that is better suited to the families that it should be serving. 

Q: What do you see as most important for TANF reform? 

Among many things that need to be fixed with TANF, the amount has not changed since 1996. If you look at what you could buy 25+ years ago versus what you can buy with a dollar today, that is a fundamental problem. Also, there are incentives in TANF for states to decrease the number of families receiving TANF, so fewer low-income families receive cash assistance today because of the policy choices that states are making. And the vast majority of TANF funding is not going toward providing cash assistance to families. 

These decisions made in 1996 gave weight to a very harmful narrative–to many, many harmful stereotypes about people in poverty–and really cemented problematic arguments around who is deserving of economic support. 

Two policymaking frameworks that I find helpful are Reproductive Justice and Black Women Best.

A Reproductive Justice framework emphasizes that people should have the autonomy to be able to determine what is best for them. When we advocate for economic support programs, we want to make sure we are responding to what families say is best for them and their children, and that families have all the options available to them. Ultimately, families know what is best for them and their children.

Black Women Best is an economic framework, and the idea is that policymaking that centers people who are most disadvantaged in our economy will build a better economy for everyone. Similarly, I think that policymaking centering Black women in TANF–that addresses their specific barriers to economic well being–is going to build a better TANF program for everyone. 

Q: What are states doing with TANF reform that might be promising for New York?

A: Because of the way that TANF is structured, states have such wide flexibility, so change is possible at the state level. 

There’s so much state advocates can be pushing for with TANF, like increasing benefit levels or ensuring that annual adjustments are made based on inflation or rising costs of living. Some benefit levels haven’t been updated in decades. State advocates could also focus on increasing access through expanding eligibility around income limits, or limits on the savings and assets families can have and still qualify. 

States can also use TANF funds to provide what is called Non-Recurrent Short Term Benefits (NRSTs), or emergency cash for temporary crises. It has been used to meet housing needs, provide burial assistance, cover child care costs, issue scholarships, provide a clothing allowance (such as for back-to-school clothes), and more.

Flint, Michigan just launched the RX Kids Initiative, a guaranteed income program for new parents, that is partially funded by TANF. It uses the NRST benefit to pay for four months of support. That’s innovation. All of this is part of a larger ecosystem of recognizing that change is possible in TANF. 

The promising story to me is the states where advocates have, year on year, worked with their state legislatures to push small changes in TANF that over time are building up to help a lot more families. 

Previously, I worked in child welfare. It has been all too clear that, too often, children and families are becoming involved in the child welfare system because of a lack of economic support. TANF is one vehicle that can give cash support and economic support, particularly to the families that have the lowest incomes. State policymakers can make these choices. The research already shows us what the effects would be.