“What’re You Going to Do with that Little Bit of Money?” NYC cash assistance and how it could shift to unconditionally invest in families, explained.

Published: May 14, 2024

By Mahima Golani

Parents and young people have advocated for unconditional cash to reduce child welfare involvement and build family well-being. One option is to reform how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars are spent in New York. 

TANF funds the cash assistance provided through HRA in NYC and is the largest source of cash support for families (see “What Is TANF?” below for details). Access to TANF has been shown to reduce child welfare involvement. National research shows that when TANF resources are more available to families, involvement with child welfare decreases, and the opposite is also true.  

In NYC, the number of people receiving cash assistance is the highest it has been in almost 25 years as the economy continues to struggle post-pandemic.[1] However, it provides less real value than ever to families, and fewer than one out of every 7 families who need it are actually receiving it. It also comes weighed down with hard-to-navigate regulations and paperwork, and stigma.

Signed into law in 1996, at the same time as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 that dramatically increased permanent family separations and the 1994 Crime Bill that exacerbated mass incarceration, TANF regulations reflect the racism, hysteria and rush to punishment of that time, as scholars have documented. Welfare “doles out humiliating relief,” Dorothy Roberts wrote in 1994, just before TANF passed. “Recipients are stigmatized as shiftless and irresponsible, their personal lives are scrutinized by government workers, and they must conform to behavioral rules in order to receive their benefits.” Today, those mindsets and harsh restrictions on families receiving public benefits are still reflected in federal and state policy decisions that continue efforts to ‘end welfare’—rather than focus on ending poverty

At the federal level, policy groups including the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) have mapped out visions for shifting TANF toward providing unconditional cash support to better protect families from the impacts of poverty, particularly in ways that center anti-racist goals. Recently, the federal Office of Family Assistance also has taken steps that could begin to shift TANF to provide more cash to families, with fewer strings attached. In New York, the state Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council has started exploring the role that TANF reform can play in reducing poverty. New York advocates like FPWA have identified key areas for TANF and broader system reform, and pushed proposals to increase cash to families through TANF.

The 2022 Georgetown report Re-Envisioning TANF proposed replacing TANF’s goals with anti-racist goals:

CBPP has outlined how TANF could be reimagined using the “Black Women Best” economic framework.[2] The framework argues that centering policy decisions around the needs of Black women–who it argues have been most excluded and exploited in the American economy–would improve social and economic well-being for all families.

This explainer maps out the space between TANF cash assistance in NYC as it’s experienced now by families and an anti-racist and unconditional cash program that truly invests in families. It also highlights current efforts to reform TANF at the federal level and through advocacy in New York state. 

State-Level Advocacy Can Achieve Significant Shifts for NYC Families

Research nationally and in NYC shows that families are turning to cash assistance at times of emergency when savings are exhausted and work is not an option because of destabilizing situations, such as escaping domestic violence or needing to care for a loved one. 

In interviews with FPP, parents impacted by child welfare who had also experienced the cash assistance system in NYC echoed this reality:

“I applied when my son was born because he was born sick. I worked up until he was born, and he had a lot of surgeries and stuff like that. The process was pretty awful. You’re literally there all day to fill up this application.” – Crystal Hughes

“I can’t go back to work because my son has GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease). So it’s difficult for childcare to deal with that, and GERD doesn’t go away until after he’s 1.” – Anjèl Charles 

“It shouldn’t have to take 30 to 45 days for you to come up with a decision on whether families are able to get public assistance or not. Don’t make us wait 45 days to get food stamps when we’re hungry. We got children. You know, we don’t want ACS to come into our life, because we got inadequate food, because that’s the first thing ACS wants to say, ‘You don’t have enough of this. You don’t have enough of that.’” – Aaliyah Randolph

Compared to other states, TANF in NYC is more generous and less restricted[3]:

However, much would need to shift for cash assistance to effectively help as many families as possible navigate emergencies and achieve economic security and prosperity, especially NYC’s Black and Latino families and those headed by single parents. Many of these shifts can be achieved through state-level advocacy. States have control over who is eligible, how much cash they receive, how accessible benefits are and how they are implemented. 

Ensuring that Cash Assistance Addresses Emergencies and Supports Long-Term Prosperity

Cash Assistance Does Not Lift Families Out of Poverty in NYC

TANF cash assistance in NYC offers a maximum monthly benefit of $789/month for a family of three. That does not come close to lifting families out of poverty. It places families 41% below the federal poverty line[4] and 88% below the estimated cost of living for a family in the Bronx, leaving families struggling to afford essentials like housing, food, toiletries and healthcare. Parents who spoke with FPP named raising the benefit level as their first priority for change. 

“Kids grow fast. They need shoes, they need clothes. What’re you going to do with that little bit of money?” – Crystal

“Once you buy soap, tissue, toothpaste, get a little bit of hygiene products, and all of that stuff, it’s gone. That’s not enough for people, like at all.” – Shaniqua Green

“Realistically, I would say $180 every two weeks is really hard, especially if you have an infant, to be able to get what that child needs plus toiletries for yourself. It really makes it hard to be able to pinch pennies to, you know, choose between buying a body wash for yourself or something for the baby.” – Cassandra Gonzalez

Families Today are Getting 1/3 Less for Their Money than They Used To

Cash assistance benefits in New York can buy 34% less than they did 30 years ago. If benefit amounts in 1996 ($557 for a family of 3) had kept up with inflation, that amount today would be $1,115, not $789. Meanwhile, housing, transportation, health care and childcare costs have skyrocketed, making it increasingly difficult for families to cover even basic expenses. 

Families Cannot Pay for Basic Needs on $300/month 

More than half of cash assistance that families receive must be spent on utilities ($53) and rent ($400). The only cash that families have to spend is $336/month for a family of three—or about $10 per day. 

“Just because you get food stamps, and you got a house full of food, that doesn’t make you not need cash.” – Crystal

Paying NYC Rent on the Maximum Cash Assistance Shelter Allowance is Impossible 

In 2022, almost 1 out of 5 NYC families receiving cash assistance experienced homelessness. While the federal government calculated reasonable rents for safe and habitable housing in NYC at $2,752/month for a 2-bedroom apartment in 2024, the maximum rental allowance on TANF is only $400/month for a family of three. And families in shelters receive only part of the cash grant—$189 for a family of three, or $2 per person per day. Many families eligible for additional assistance, such as NYC’s FHEPS vouchers, NYCHA housing, or Section 8, do not receive any

Even with Cash Assistance + Every Other Benefit Program, Families Would Not Meet the Cost of Living in NYC

Almost all NYC families receiving cash assistance also receive SNAP benefits, but many families eligible for supports like childcare, healthcare and rental assistance are not enrolled.  

If all eligible New York state adults and children were enrolled in all seven safety net programs, poverty statewide would drop by almost 40%. It would cut child poverty in half. Yet more than 2 million New Yorkers would still be living in poverty. Even at its full potential, NY’s current safety net cannot hold all families that are currently struggling to make ends meet.

Assisting More Families Struggling to Meet their Basic Needs 

Eligibility for Cash Assistance in NY Is Lower Than in 27 States

Families must have extremely low incomes to apply for cash assistance, excluding most families in poverty.[5] A family of three cannot make more than $9,468/year (or $789/month) when applying. If families are approved at this very low income level (and meet all other criteria), they can then make up to $29,640/year and continue receiving cash benefits. 

This leaves many families—those making $15,000/year, for example—stuck in poverty and invisible, without relief from the cash benefits system. While definitely ‘living in poverty’ by all measures, they can’t access cash support. Eligibility in New York is lower than in 27 states, whose limits range from $900 to almost $2,700/month when families are applying.

Regulations Require That Families Drain Their Savings Before Coming to Cash Assistance

To qualify for cash assistance in New York when applying, a family (of any size) cannot have over $2,500 in savings.[6] That means families have to be down to less than one month of reasonable rent in savings when they start the application process and can’t keep money saved up to get through future tough times, like moving or having a medical emergency. 

Experts say that having enough money to cover living costs for three months is a good minimum safety net for a family. Savings limits have been shown to make it tougher for people to get ahead financially, especially for people of color, who often face more unstable jobs. Lack of a financial cushion can put families at risk of child welfare involvement. Nine states have gotten rid of rules about the savings or assets that families can have to get or keep cash assistance.

“I don’t think that your account should say zero, or you should be broke, to get public assistance. Public assistance is to help families get back on their feet. I don’t think you should count a person’s savings. Because that’s for emergencies, that’s not something that I’m living off of. You know, family deaths do happen. We do need safety nets.” – Aaliyah

“I don’t understand why you can’t have certain savings, because [they’re] teaching me to continuously, like, be basically poor. Because after you’re off of welfare and stuff like that, you’re gonna need a little something saved up. You ain’t gonna want to keep on having to go back to them.” – Parent

Addressing Regulations to Reduce Barriers for Families

Frequent Denials and Recent Delays Leave Families Support in Times of Crisis

Advocates and parents describe the NYC benefits system as notoriously hard to navigate logistically and emotionally. People often get denied not because they are ineligible but because of lengthy paperwork and an interview that can be hard to schedule. Almost 70% of all denied cases in 2023 were due to administrative barriers like not completing interviews or not providing documentation.[7]

Chart by Patrick Spauster. Reprinted from City Limits courtesy of the authors


NYC has invested in streamlining access to benefits through an online platform called AccessHRA and NYCBenefits locations that provide community-based support with applications (while closing benefits centers). However, city job vacancies and changes in benefits processing have led to persistent and unlawful delays in processing times in the past 18 months, with just 55% of December 2023 cash assistance applications processed on time, up from only 14.3% in July through October of that year. 

“Especially, you know, Black and brown, low-income, marginalized communities, survivors—I’m a survivor—we don’t necessarily always have that safety net. And there should be some more resources and safety things for us. But it’s really not. The system was really—it’s hard to navigate, many times it’s hard to navigate effectively.” – Cassandra

“It’s a burden to go into the center and keep asking for assistance, or to have to dread it, or have to keep worrying. Even with the recertifications, that’s a problem, too.” – Parent

“We shouldn’t have to fill out applications after applications just to eat, or just to survive. Public assistance is quick to turn you off. And then you have to ask for a fair hearing. And you have to wait another month, just to receive cash and food stamps. So you don’t have any food, you don’t have any cash, you still have to wait the waiting game to get accepted or not.” – Aaliyah

Work Requirements Add Stress to Families Seeking Cash Assistance during Temporary Financial Crises

New York has expanded what counts as ‘work’ by including activities such as schooling and job preparation, and offers some exemptions to requirements. However, more than 80% of families receiving cash assistance in NY still must work up to 30 hours every week to keep benefits. 

Work requirements have been shown to contribute to increasing deep poverty and hurt families in the long run.[8] Nationally, parents with the most obstacles stacked against them—those with physical or mental health issues, fleeing domestic violence, or lacking child care or transportation—are more likely to lose benefits for not meeting work requirements. 

“It’s sad to say but during COVID, that was probably the easiest to get benefits. It was easy to get the services that you needed, without the surveillance…It was hard that it had to be a situation like that, for it to be a smoother process.” – Cassandra

“I worked for almost 14 years. So my tax dollars are supposed to be helping me back. And it’s not.” – Anjèl

Child Support Requirements Place Pressure on Co-Parenting Relationships

Single parents applying for cash assistance are required by state law to apply for child support (with some exceptions, such as for domestic violence), yet they only receive a portion of collected support. Cash assistance recipients get only up to $100 of support collected for one child or up to $200 for two or more children on top of cash benefits, and the state keeps the remainder as reimbursement

These policies function to disproportionately harm low-income Black and brown fathers, hurt co-parenting relationships and the well-being of children. States like Colorado and Michigan have made all child support payments available to families, without being counted as additional income. 

”We’re having a good co-parenting [relationship]. We don’t want to add this because it’s just going to make things more awkward. Like, you’re destroying a co-parenting family, or maybe a family that’s not living together, but they’re working towards it. It’s just like, ‘No, he’s already involved. Leave that man alone.’ Now, if he’s not involved, and the mother wants to do it, go ahead. But if we don’t want to do it, that should be our choice.” – Anjèl

“They make you look for people that are nonexistent. And that money is going towards the city, not towards the families” – Aaliyah

Unpredictability in the Cash Assistance System Strains Families Further

Administrative burdens and regulations can make it difficult to find out about, apply for, and be approved for benefits. Families that spoke with FPP shared the stresses of uncertainty, stigma and discomfort—especially the feeling of being at the mercy of the system—that can arise when interacting with the cash assistance system: 

“With this whole welfare case thing, you really have to know what you’re doing to maneuver it. Because if you don’t, you’ll really get lost.” – Aaliyah

“Sometimes because of how rude they are, you’re hoping and begging that you can do everything online and submit documents online so that you don’t have to go in there and feel minimized.” – Cassandra

“You’re playing Russian roulette with the HRA worker you get.” – Anjèl

“They keep you in there for hours. Then, after that, they be having attitudes and they really make you feel like you’re garbage and stuff. Like you’re going in there trying to get something extra. I can’t even tell you. That’s frickin’ hard. Oh my God, it’s a mission.” – Cassandra

Making TANF Cash Assistance Work for Black and Latino Families, and Single Parents

Black and Latino Families are Least Likely to Experience the Benefits of TANF Cash Assistance, and Most Likely to be Negatively Impacted by NY TANF Policies

Research shows that “racial resentment has undermined support for welfare programs and shaped dimensions of policy implementation, creating more punitive and burdensome programs that disproportionately affect racially marginalized groups.”

In NYC, the wealth gap and the wage gap mean that Black and Latino families are more likely to experience challenges to economic security. This means that cash assistance policies and regulations, like administrative burdens, work requirements and savings limits, will disproportionately and more negatively impact families of color. Indeed, many more white households can exit the Family Assistance program within five years compared to Black families, reflecting the additional challenges that Black families face. 

Redlining and racism in housing also mean that housing instability disproportionately affect families of color, and almost 90% of “heads of households” of families in shelter in NYC are Black or Latino, yet cash benefit amounts in NYC are further reduced for families living in shelters, making it even harder to make ends meet, much less protect against future setbacks. Typically, a quarter of families in shelters have been ACS-involved.

NY TANF Policies Could Protect, Not Penalize, Single Mothers

The goals of TANF to ‘encourage two-parent families’ and ‘prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies’ arose from decades of harsh and punitive reactions to unmarried women, and Black women in particular. 

Research comparing the United States to similar countries (for instance, Ireland and the U.K.) finds that single motherhood, while less common in the U.S., comes with a much harsher penalty. It also shows that this penalty—a higher risk of experiencing poverty—is significantly greater in the U.S. for Black and Latino mothers. TANF could be better buffering economic stress for single parents in NYC, who are more likely to live neighborhoods with high poverty rates and to spend more than half of their income on housing, and less likely to be able to call on their support network for an emergency loan during a crisis. 

In NYC in 2021, single mothers of color with children under five were most likely to struggle to meet basic needs: 89% of Latina mothers and 92% of Black mothers, compared to 65% of white mothers. This is especially significant because younger children are much more likely to enter foster care than older children. In NYC, children under 5 made up only 28% of children in an investigation but 43% of children entering foster care in 2019. 

Looking Ahead: Current Efforts to Shift TANF Toward Unconditional Cash 

Federal Reforms on the Horizon

The last two decades have seen very limited program changes to TANF at the national level. Then, in the pandemic, states received an influx of $1 billion in funds to spend on a form of short-term TANF support. that has been used by states 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. Since then, the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has announced two promising shifts:

First, amidst growing reporting on abuse and misuse of TANF, ACF proposed a package of reforms to TANF that would direct more TANF funds to families most in need. The proposed rules “remind states” how effective direct cash assistance is in reducing poverty, and encourage them to spend a higher percentage of total TANF dollars on cash. If these reforms are adopted, then, among other changes, TANF funding would only be spent on families living under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL). Most states, including New York, spend at least some TANF on programs—like pre-K, tax credits, or employment programs—that support families living at 300-400% of the poverty line. Spending also would be limited to the four program goals. States have used TANF to pay for things unrelated to meeting family economic needs, such as child welfare investigations, college scholarship programs for individuals without children, anti-abortion pregnancy counseling, afterschool and mentoring or tutoring programs, and some outlandish uses

Second, ACF announced a pilot program that would give five states the opportunity to track how effective TANF is in reducing poverty and increasing family stability. This proposal seeks to address how TANF is currently evaluated on how well it is ‘ending welfare’ (by reducing caseloads and encouraging employment) rather than on how well it is ending poverty. Details have not yet been released, but the pilot could be an opportunity to shape the future design of TANF. States could seek to address and measure whether approaches are reducing family hardship (like running out of food, being at risk for eviction, or being unable to afford medical care), and even whether TANF is reducing child welfare investigations and removals.  

The package of reforms and the pilot do not change the goals of TANF, but are steps towards providing families, and especially those most in need, with more direct and unconditional cash assistance to reduce economic hardships.

New York State Reform Efforts

Even without federal intervention, states have the power to get closer to an anti-racist and unconditional cash program that works for families.

Bills developed by Legal Aid, Empire Justice Center, and the Safety Net Project and introduced in the New York state legislature this past session—though not included in the budget— would have raised the benefit level and contributed to a more flexible and supportive cash assistance program:

  • Increasing Cash Benefits Amounts – A.5500/S.5270 [2023-2024] sought to adjust the basic grant and utility grant amounts to account for inflation. These amounts have not been updated since 2011 and 1981, respectively. A modified version of this bill that was introduced in the one-house this session but did not pass would have increased the grant for families not living in shelters by about $70-$100 per family member. 
  • Matching Cash Benefits for Homeless New Yorkers – A.5507/S.8655 [2023-2024] would have increased the personal and special needs allowances for individuals and families in shelters that provide meals (who receive a reduced cash benefit), bringing it in line with the amounts provided to individuals and families in other shelters.
  • Helping Working Recipients Save More – A5875/S2144, and S8374 [2023-2024] would have allowed all public assistance recipients to continue receiving benefits alongside earned income for a maximum of 6 months after completing an employment training program. This would help prevent the “benefits cliff” (where participants experience a sudden decrease in benefits when they experience a small increase in earnings), and allow participants the opportunity to save. A modified version of this bill for participants making under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line went into effect in December 2023.

Other options to improve TANF for families can be backed by advocacy, including:

Currently, the NY state Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council (CPRAC) is working with the Urban Institute to examine shifts to TANF and other benefits—such as increasing basic allowances and shelter allowance, and increasing income eligibility—that would have the biggest impact on reducing poverty in the state. The Council plans to issue recommendations by the end of the year. 

Taken together, these growing efforts indicate that TANF reform could be an important lever that advocates can use to direct more cash to families, and consequently, reduce child welfare involvement.

Organizations and coalitions including Legal Aid, Empire Justice Center, the Safety Net Project, FPWA, the NY State Cash Alliance and other groups are organizing for cash reform now. Feel free to contact NYC Family Policy Project to be connected: info@familypolicynyc.org

What is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

The TANF block grant is a fixed amount of money that states get from the federal government to address certain goals. States must contribute state dollars, called Maintenance-of-Effort, or MOE to the same goals. In NYC, federal and state TANF dollars fund these two cash assistance programs through HRA:

Family Assistance (FA): Family Assistance offers cash assistance to families with children or “dependents” under the care of a relative or guardian. According to federal guidelines, adults can receive this aid for a maximum of 60 months in their lifetime, with a number of specific restrictions.

Safety Net Assistance (SNA): Safety Net Assistance provides cash assistance for families who reached the 60-month limit on FA, as well as for certain others, including childless adults, children eligible independently of their parents, or those living separately from their parents. Immigrants not covered by FA may qualify for this aid, which is funded primarily by the state and local governments. 

Both programs are administered by New York's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), and have the same requirements, benefit amounts, and income thresholds.

With $2.2 billion federal TANF dollars and $2.9 billion in state dollars, NY state spent 31% of TANF funds on direct cash assistance, 19% on tax credits, 15% on pre-K, 7% on child care, and 7% on child welfare in 2021.

Thank you to Aditi Shrivastava and Julia Casey for taking the time to review and provide thoughtful feedback, and to Kali Grant, Sierra Wilson, Dr. Carolyn Barnes and Dr. Hank Puls for offering helpful information and insights. A special thank you to the parents who shared their expertise with FPP, including: Aaliyah Randolph, Anjèl Charles, Cassandra Gonzalez, Christine Joseph, Crystal Hughes, Shamara Kelly, Shaniqua Green and others who chose not to be named. FPP is grateful to Rise and YouthNPower for connecting us with parents.

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