Temporary Cash Assistance for The Poor

TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as the name implies, extends temporary financial assistance to “needy” families that are living on income far enough below the poverty threshold.

Study has shown households headed by single parents were more than twice as likely as households with married couples to experience hardship. 1

Single-mother families are worse off than any other types of households with slightly over 40% are officially below the poverty level. It comes as no surprise that many are homeless and unable to afford even the basic necessities like food & housing.

Additional Resource: > List of Grants for Single Moms


The federal government funds a range of welfare programs for the poor, from cash assistance, food stamps to Medicaid — making sure that they have access to a minimum level of support to meet their basic needs.

And TANF often becomes a source of safety net for over 2 million families while they get back on their feet — with single mothers making up the bulk of welfare recipients.

What is TANF and how does it work? #


TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as the name implies, extends temporary financial assistance to “needy” families that are living on income far enough below the poverty threshold.

The grand idea is to offer short-term assistance, with the aim of helping them get off of welfare — primarily through employment, which would lessen their need for assistance.

TANF provides monthly cash stipends via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) which is used like a bank debit card to pay for rent, day care, and even for the purchase of food.

How Do You Know if You Qualify for TANF? #


Eligibility for TANF depends upon one’s income and the total no. of dependents in the household. And since it is a state-administered program, each state is given wide discretion over eligibility, benefit levels and time limit.

The income limits are different for each state, higher in some and lower in others. In all states except Wisconsin, the maximum earnings thresholds is set below the federal poverty level.

This essentially means that it is technically possible for a single mother with two children earning less than $21,960 a year or about $1,800 per month to be eligible for TANF assistance.

Most states do require families applying for TANF cash assistance to both meet income eligibility criteria and have assets below a certain amount. The most common asset limit is $2,000 or less.

However, in recent years a number of states — Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia — have eliminated asset tests for eligibility and base financial eligibility on income alone.


Some states deny more cash assistance to families that have another child while enrolled in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

This little-known welfare law known as the “family cap” is designed to disincentivize poor women from having more children to receive extra TANF money. 2

Is There a Time Limit to How Long I Can Receive TANF Benefits? #


Yes, under the current welfare law, the maximum time you can receive TANF assistance is 60 months (5 years), although many states adopt shorter time limits.

23 states have time limits shorter than 60 months, including 13 states with time limits of 24 months or less. 2 states have no time limit on benefits — New York and Massachusetts.

For example, the lifetime limit for RI Works is 48 months. Families also are limited to no more than 24 months of cash assistance in a 60-month period. Connecticut has a 21-month cap on welfare benefits.

Arizona is the first state in the nation to limit lifetime welfare benefits to 12 months, making it the nation’s shortest such limit. As a result, Arizona family that has already used 12 months of TANF will have no cash safety net.

This, however, does not mean you will automatically stop getting cash assistance at the end of 60 months. DSHS will decide whether you qualify for an “exception” to or “extension” of the time limit.

How Much Cash Assistance Will I Get? #


TANF cash benefits vary greatly from state to state. For a family of three, the maximum TANF benefit paid in 2020 varied from $170 per month in Mississippi to $1,086 per month in New Hampshire — the most generous of any state. 3

Most Generous States Maximum Benefits % of Poverty Level
New Hampshire $1,086 60.0
Alaska $923 40.8
California $878 41.2
New York $789 43.6
Maryland $727 40.2
Wyoming $712 39.3
Vermont $699 38.6
Connecticut $698 38.6
District of Columbia $658 36.4
Wisconsin $653 36.1

Most states generally vary maximum benefits by family size, paying bigger benefits for larger families. 4 Only Idaho and Wisconsin pay the same maximum benefit regardless of family size.

However, for those who do receive assistance from TANF, the benefits remain quite low and are not sufficient to provide for basic needs; covering only a fraction of housing costs in most states.

Today, every state’s TANF benefits for a family of three with no other cash income were at or below 60% of the poverty line.


Benefits for a family of three are below 30% of the poverty line in 33 states and the District of Columbia with 18 of those states paying less than 20% of the poverty line — that is, less than $400 a month for a single mother of two. 4

What are the requirements to receive TANF? #


For families that participate in the program, TANF is often their only source of support, and without it, many would have no cash income to meet their basic needs.

The catch is, you’re expected to participate in work activities for an average of 30 hours per week OR gain employment no later than two years upon receiving assistance.

Single parents must participate in a work activity for a minimum of 20 hours per week if they have a child under age 6. 30 hours if the child is over age 6.

To count toward the work requirement, you must participate in one or more of the following, failure to comply with the work rules will have your benefits reduced or revoked.

  1. unsubsidized or subsidized employment,
  2. on-the-job training,
  3. community service,
  4. up to 12 months of vocational education, or
  5. provide child care services to individuals who are participating in community service.

How Do I Apply for TANF? #


Though the overall TANF program is administered by the Office of Family Assistance, which is part of the Administration for Children and Families, programs in individual states may use different names, like California’s CALWORKS or Family Independence Program (FIP) in Michigan.

Each state is responsible for setting its own specific requirements for accepting and considering applications for TANF. Depending on which state you live, you may apply online or in person at the local county office.


  1. Hardship is defined as having difficulty meeting essential expenses, not paying rent or mortgage, getting evicted, not paying utilities, having utilities cut off, or not always having enough food.
  2. CBPP, States Should Follow New Jersey: Repeal Racist “Family Cap”.
  3. New Hampshire passed legislation in 2017 to tie TANF benefit levels to 60% of the federal poverty line and to adjust them automatically each year. In 2018, the benefit was increased to $1,039.
  4. CBPP, TANF Benefits Still Too Low to Help Families, Especially Black Families, Avoid Increased Hardship