Reflecting on 25 Years of TANF Research

August 24, 2021
| Hilary Bruck
Two people sitting at a table, reading and writing.

This week marks the silver anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. As Director of OPRE’s Division of Economic Independence, which has primary responsibility for TANF and family self-sufficiency research, I am marking this milestone by reflecting on OPRE’s work in this domain over the past 25 years and highlighting current and nascent efforts poised to advance the evidence base in important ways.

TANF was created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). Structured as a block grant, TANF allows states flexibility in how they expend their funds, including the amount of cash assistance issued to eligible families and the provision of other services. PRWORA also authorized funding for TANF research and evaluation. Over the past 25 years, OPRE has invested in an expansive research and evaluation portfolio to build knowledge about programs, policies, and issues relevant to TANF and the families it serves. The portfolio’s breadth and depth are a reflection of the broad authority afforded by TANF, and the ensuing variation in program rules and approaches; its scope is also indicative of the shifts in policies, contexts, and priorities over time to which it was responsive. I don’t have space in this blog post to fully describe the portfolio’s rich landscape, but below I outline some primary areas of focus and a sample of the key topics examined within each over the past 25 years.

Primary areas of focus:

Key topics examined:

TANF programs, policies, and data

TANF policies across states and years; implementation of county- and state-administered programs and Tribal TANF programs; nature and effect of diversion policies, federal work participation requirements, and time limits; intersection with other safety net programs; role of office culture in shaping client experiences; exploration of employment-related outcomes in TANF; use of TANF data for program improvement

TANF and TANF-eligible populations

Characteristics of TANF caseloads, leavers, and families “disconnected” from employment and TANF; overlap in TANF and SSI caseloads; access to services among American Indians and Alaska Natives in urban areas; experiences and perspectives of children and families living in poverty

Strategies to promote employment attainment, retention, and advancement

Implementation and effectiveness of welfare to work programs, services for the “hard-to-employ”, employment retention and advancement interventions, subsidized and transitional employment approaches, job search assistance strategies, employment coaching models

Education and training strategies for improving employment and earnings

Implementation and effectiveness of post-secondary career pathways programs, including the ACF-administered Health Profession Opportunity Grants program

Cross-cutting strategies to alleviate poverty

Application of behavioral science insights to human services program design; two-generation approaches for supporting child development and family economic security; TANF agencies’ support for families experiencing homelessness; integration of financial capability and employment services; provision of and unmet need for human services in rural contexts

To generate knowledge on key topics within the focus areas above, OPRE has funded experimental impact evaluations, implementation evaluations, descriptive research studies, and other analyses. Additionally, we have invested in initiatives to build capacity in the field to learn from and contribute to the evidence base; and to gather input from and disseminate findings to a wide range of stakeholders. I should also note that other OPRE divisions support research and evaluation on aspects of TANF’s broad purposes—for example, the Division of Family Strengthening leads work on healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood.

OPRE has generated extensive learning on a host of TANF and family self-sufficiency topics over the past 25 years. And yet, the work continues. There remain gaps in knowledge uncovered by past efforts as well as emerging issues that warrant investigation. Further, methodological advancements are yielding novel ways to conduct and extend analyses. OPRE is seizing these opportunities to push the evidence base forward in ways that refine and expand our learning while also accounting for contemporary legislative, economic, and social contexts. A few examples of such efforts include:

  • The Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse Visit disclaimer page is systematically reviewing and rating the evidence on interventions designed to improve employment outcomes for low-income populations. Through a user-friendly website and diverse dissemination products, the Clearinghouse is helping practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and the public better understand and apply the evidence.
  • The TANF Data Innovation Project provides technical assistance to TANF agencies to support innovation and efficiency through the enhanced use of data. The project’s design and objectives are grounded in findings from a 2019 needs assessment of the capacity of TANF programs to analyze and apply data for the purposes of program improvement, monitoring, and evidence-building. The findings—summarized in a recently released brief—revealed areas of strength as well as barriers to data use.
  • The Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Human Services Analysis Execution Project is analyzing data to identify and assess potential racial and ethnic disparities across human services programs. OPRE initiated this work in 2015, and it directly aligns with the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government Visit disclaimer page released this past January.
  • Through the Innovative Strategies for Addressing Employment Barriers Portfolio, OPRE seeks to identify and rigorously evaluate the “next generation” of employment strategies. The portfolio is considering for evaluation a wide range of strategies targeted to populations facing complex barriers (such as physical and mental health conditions, substance use disorder, or a criminal history), with the objective of identifying what works for whom.
  • OPRE also anticipates funding new projects this fiscal year to strengthen the use of participatory methods and contextual analysis in research and evaluation; to assess the effects of COVID-19 on TANF and child support programs; to identify barriers to employment and advancement in the lower-wage labor market; and to support field-initiated research on innovative employment strategies, among others.

To learn more about OPRE’s TANF and family self-sufficiency research portfolio, and to track its continued evolution, I encourage you to check out our annual reports, the ACF Research & Evaluation Agenda Welfare and Family Self-Sufficiency Snapshot, and resources from past and current projects listed under the Self-Sufficiency, Welfare, and Employment research topic on OPRE’s website. Also consider attending the 2022 Research and Evaluation Conference on Self-Sufficiency Visit disclaimer page and view sessions from conferences dating back to 2009 on the website Visit disclaimer page .


Hilary Bruck is the director of OPRE’s Division of Economic Independence (DEI). She has led OPRE’s Health Profession Opportunity Grants federal evaluation portfolio and other projects focused on employment and training interventions for low-income individuals.

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