Georgia Can Afford to Begin to Modernize TANF and Move Past Its Racist Legacy

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the cash assistance program to families with children and with very low incomes, should help stabilize any family, Black, Brown or white, when they experience a life challenge like a job loss. Yet TANF was built on racist narratives and policies that have kept it from being the program families need when they struggle to make ends meet. Today, Georgia lawmakers are letting the program wither on the vine by not fully utilizing TANF resources to support families.

Data show increased hardship and financial need for families, especially for Black and Brown families, during the pandemic. However, Georgia’s TANF program, which should provide more relief to more families, spends very little on cash grants to TANF families. Its benefit level, which has been unchanged for 30 years, is just $280 a month for a family of three, about 15 percent of the federal poverty line. The program reaches only five families for every 100 in poverty. With low benefits and so few families in need receiving cash assistance, Georgia’s TANF program does little to help protect children from neglect, which is often an outcome of a family having too few resources to meet their basic needs.

Historically, Georgia policymakers instituted policies that targeted Black mothers and denied cash aid to their children. Unfortunately, the legacy of structural racism is still a part of the state’s program today. Research finds that states with high Black populations, like Georgia, tend to spend less on cash assistance for families than states with fewer Black residents.

Georgia can more than afford to do better and begin to take steps towards more equitable anti-poverty programs for Black, Brown and white families. Policymakers can modernize TANF by increasing benefits and expanding access to more families with low income by fully utilizing the federal and state funds at their disposal to bolster the program.

Background on TANF Funding

TANF funding includes a fixed federal block grant and required state contributions. The federal law allows for broad flexibility in how states spend their resources. Georgia’s block grant is about $330 million a year, but because it has remained unchanged for a quarter of a century, it has lost about 40 percent of its inflation-adjusted value.

Available TANF Funds
Federal TANF Block Grant $329,650,291
75% State MOE Obligation $173,368,527
Total Available Funds $503,018,818
TANF Spending FFY 2020
Federal Spending $310,921,043
State MOE Spending $173,371,527
Total Federal and State Spending $484,292,570

Source: Department of Health and Human Services’ FFY 2020 TANF financial data and Georgia Department of Human Services data on TANF MOE spending.

States also have an annual cost-sharing requirement called the Maintenance of Effort (MOE). Each state must spend an amount equal to at least 75 percent if the state meets its work participation rate, of what the state spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, TANF’s predecessor, and related programs in 1994.[1] Georgia only has to spend the minimum required MOE of about $173 million. However, the state would not meet its MOE requirement without relying heavily on “third-party” MOE, which is the spending of community-based organizations that serve children and families with low income. Georgia has relied heavily on third-party MOE for years.

Federal and state TANF resources must be used on a range of activities related to the four broad purposes of TANF:

  1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives;
  2. End TANF dependency by promoting job preparation, work and marriage;
  3. Prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and
  4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Overview of Georgia’s 2020 TANF Spending

In 2020, the state spent a total of about $484 million in TANF funds, including $311 million in federal resources and $173 million in state MOE. However, most of those funds did not go to families with the lowest income in the form of monthly cash assistance. In 2020, Georgia spent only 10 percent of its total TANF funds on basic assistance or the monthly payments to TANF families. Like in years past, the state spent the largest share of its TANF resources on (1) foster care and related payments and (2) child welfare services. These two categories combined make up 60 percent of all of Georgia’s TANF spending. As discussed later, increasing TANF benefits and expanding access to the program could form part of a larger strategy to prevent harm to children and ultimately reduce child-welfare-related costs. However, spending on TANF basic assistance has declined year after year.

Georgia’s TANF Spending in 2020

Consolidated Spending Categories Federal Spending Share of Total Federal Spending State Spending Share of Total State Spending Total TANF Spending Share of Total Spending
Basic Assistance* $28,975,220 9% $17,837,462 10% $46,812,682 10%
Work Programs $8,286,208 3% $0 0% $8,286,208 2%
Work Supports & Supportive Services $13,951,900 4% $0 0% $13,951,900 3%
Child Care $0 0% $22,185,651 13% $22,185,651 5%
After School Care $14,749,724 5% $39,184,173 23% $53,933,897 11%
Program Administration $26,638,920 9% $3,777,485 2% $30,416,405 6%
Foster Care & Related Payments $58,982,969 19% $29,979,278 17% $88,962,247 18%
Child Welfare Services  $143,525,110 46% $60,407,478 35% $203,932,588 42%
Short-Term Benefits $5,799,183 2% $0 0% $5,799,183 1%
Teen Pregnancy Prevention $10,011,809 3% $0 0% $10,011,809 2%
Total $310,921,043   $173,371,527   $484,292,570

* Not all spending in this area goes exclusively to TANF cash families.

**Percentages may not total to 100 percent due to rounding.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services’ FFY 2020 TANF financial data and Georgia Department of Human Services data on MOE spending.

States must report their spending to the Department of Health and Human Services and for what purposes. For simplicity, the author consolidated many of the spending categories by related purposes. Below are summaries of spending in selected categories.

Basic Assistance: In 2020, total spending on basic assistance, the monthly cash payments and non-cash benefits to TANF families, was about $47 million, most of which came from federal TANF dollars. State MOE was about $1.6 million in the form of child support payments collected by the state from non-custodial parents and passed through to TANF families.[2]

The state categorized another $16 million of third-party MOE spent by community direct service providers as basic assistance but it did not go exclusively to families receiving ongoing TANF cash benefits.[3] This puts the state out of compliance with the federal requirements that should be triggered by receipt of basic assistance for these families. Federal law states that families in receipt of basic assistance, ongoing cash or non-cash benefits to meet basic needs, must be engaged in work activities and the state must report such families to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of the state’s caseload. If the state does not comply with federal law and hold these families to work requirements and count them as part of their TANF caseload, it could face workrelated or reporting fiscal penalties. These penalties could mean fewer supports to families experiencing poverty.

Work Programs and Supportive Services: Work has always been central in the rhetoric around TANF, but Georgia spends very little in this area. The state spent at least $8 million on work programs like work subsidies and education and training efforts in 2020. Georgia likely spent a bit more on some work activities like job search and placement, but it is unclear how much as they are a part of the broader Program Administration category discussed below.  Another $14 million went to work supports like transportation assistance, and supportive services, like behavioral and mental health services. All spending in both of these areas came from federal TANF funds.

Child Care and After School Programs: Spending on child care includes subsidies to help families afford the cost of care for their young children. In 2020, the state claimed $22 million in MOE for child care, but there was no federal spending in this area.  Additionally, the state spent a total of about $54 million on after-school and summer camp programs for school-age children. Broken down, this was about $15 million in federal dollars and $39 million in MOE. The state relies heavily on third-party MOE for after-school spending.

Program Administration: In 2020, Georgia spent about $30 million in program management, which includes Department of Human Services staff and offices, eligibility assessments, job placements services, program integrity and IT systems. Almost $27 million came from federal resources, and nearly $4 million came from the state MOE.

Foster Care Payments and Child Welfare Services: Most of Georgia’s TANF resources went towards broad efforts to protect children from neglect and abuse, foster care and adoption services. For the purposes of this report, we categorize these activities under two categories: (1) foster care and related payments and (2) child welfare services.

In 2020, the state spent about $89 million of federal and state TANF funds on foster care and related payments. About $59 million were federal TANF funds, and about $30 million were state MOE funds. These funds go to payments for two different recipient groups. One group includes relative caretakers with legal guardianship over the children and adoptive families.[4] The other includes foster care families who are a part of the federal foster care program called Title IV-E.[5]

Georgia spent about $204 million in TANF resources on child welfare services in 2020, with about $144 million coming from federal funds and about $60 million from state MOE.[6] Programs and activities under this category include Child Protective Services and the services of community partners.

Georgia Is Not Investing in Cash Assistance, Ignoring a Critical Component to Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect

Georgia’s spending demonstrates how the state is not targeting TANF dollars on TANF families and in spite of high poverty levels of Black and Brown children. Caseloads have steadily declined since the start of the program. But the change in caseload has not corresponded with the changes in poverty. The number of families receiving cash assistance for every 100 in poverty has dropped from 82 in 1996 to five in 2019. Even in times of severe hardship, Georgia’s TANF caseload has not risen to meet the need.  Between January 2020 and June 2021, when many families couldn’t afford food or rent because of the pandemic’s disruption to the economy, Georgia’s TANF caseload declined by 15 percent.

Georgia lawmakers have done very little to improve benefits for the 7,000 families who do receive TANF. Grandparents with low incomes who take care of grandchildren and parents who cannot meet their children’s basic needs struggled before and during the pandemic. Yet, lawmakers have refused to increase the 30-year-old benefit levels. The TANF benefit for a family of three is still $280 and has lost more than 48 percent of its purchasing power.

Diminishing caseloads without grant increases have contributed to a pot of unspent funds that should be used to support TANF families. States do not have to use all their TANF block grants dollars in one fiscal year; they can hold any unspent funds in reserve either for a future obligation or for no designated purpose at all. In 2020, Georgia had about $107 million in total unspent TANF funds, up from $88 million in 2019, and about $80 million was not obligated for any purpose.

These unspent funds are unconscionable given the needs of Georgia families and the concerns about child welfare in the state. Neglect, when parents cannot meet children’s basic, educational, and psychological needs often because of lack of financial resources, is one of the leading reasons a child may be removed from the home by Child Protective Services. When Georgia policymakers allow TANF caseloads to decline and maintain extremely low benefits, they ignore a key strategy to help prevent neglect. Furthermore, a consensus of research finds that increased income to families with small children living in poverty helps improve children’s near- and long-term prospects.

Georgia Can More Than Afford to Invest in TANF

Racist narratives like the “welfare queen” have been used to justify punitive policies and low cash assistance benefits, and today families, regardless of race, have few cash supports to stabilize them when they experience a significant challenge. Georgia’s low benefit level does little to help cover things like diapers, gas or school supplies, and it also ignores the trend we’ve seen around the country—including in Southern states like Mississippi and Tennessee—to increase benefits. Moreover, some policies that limit access to the program do not align with another key support, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Unlike TANF, SNAP does not have to assess how much a family has in savings or other assets to determine eligibility. SNAP also does not consider past felony drug convictions for access to food assistance, a practice that helps reduce the risk of recidivism. Updating these policies will not only make it easier for families struggling to make ends meet to get cash assistance but will also ease the administrative burden of connecting families to both programs.

Gov. Kemp’s administration recently announced there was a $2.2 billion surplus over and above the legal limit for its rainy day fund. Although some of that so-called surplus is due to steep budget cuts that should be restored, additional dollars are available to support Georgians’ financial need. TANF has another $80 million in unspent, unobligated funds. Georgia also leaves revenue on the table by refusing to rebalance our tax code and allowing corporations to take advantage of loopholes or tax cuts. This is a rare moment when there are more than enough resources to begin to modernize our TANF program, move past its racist legacy and provide more meaningful support to Georgia families. Furthermore, bolstering TANF should be a part of a broader prevention strategy to reduce childhood abuse and neglect.

Lawmakers can take action by allocating more federal TANF and general fund dollars to the program and passing the TANF legislation before them:

  • House Bill 91 would increase TANF benefits significantly for families.
  • House Bill 741 would eliminate policies that do not align with SNAP, like the asset test and drug felon ban, extend the time limit from 48 months to 60 months and end the family cap policy that deny higher monthly benefits to families that have a newborn after receiving TANF for 10 or more months.


[1] States that do not meet their work participation rates, must spend 80 percent of historical spending.

[2] To be eligible for TANF, applicants must assign their rights to child support over to the state. The state then passes through the child support payments to the family based on the difference between their TANF benefits and their income and the standard of need, a state measure determining the minimum amount a family needs to cover basic expenses. This measure has not been updated in decades.

[3] Department of Health and Human Services 2020 ACF-204 report on Georgia’s MOE Spending and Georgia Department of Human Services data on TANF MOE spending.

[4] Federal TANF reporting forms require states to report spending on payments to relatives with legal guardianship (but ineligible for federal foster care resources and support) under the basic assistance category. However, for many states, like in the case of Georgia, these payments do not go to families counted in the TANF caseload Therefore, GBPI separated this spending from traditional basic assistance spending. Georgia spent about $63 million in federal and state funds on payments to these families in 2020.

[5] TANF continued this policy of using AFDC funds for Title IV-E foster care payments. This is often called assistance authorized under prior law. However, only federal funds a can be used for this purpose.

[6] Federal rules allow states to transfer funds from the TANF block grant to the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), a funding that helps states provide supports to populations with unique needs. In FY 2020, Georgia transferred about $1.8 million from the TANF block grant to the SSBG, and those resources were used for child welfare services. GBPI combined that spending with other child welfare spending for this blog.

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