Measuring Employment Outcomes in TANF

Publication Date: August 27, 2018
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Introduction

Research Questions

  1. What are the issues and options of measuring employment outcomes in the TANF program?
  2. What are the issues and options for a federal role in TANF outcome measures?
  3. Are states currently measuring state-specific performance outcomes? If yes, what are they measuring and how? If no, why?

The Administration and Congress have signaled interest in promoting and measuring employment outcomes in federal programs supporting low-income people. This report offers information and insights to help policymakers and stakeholders understand the challenges of and opportunities for measuring employment outcomes in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

This report offers information and insights to help policymakers and stakeholders understand the challenges and opportunities for measuring employment outcomes in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. It also illustrates the difficulty of developing consistent national measures of employment outcomes in TANF that adhere to principles of good performance measurement. The fundamental challenge is that TANF provides great flexibility for states, so state programs differ dramatically in who receives TANF assistance, what is required of them, what assistance they receive, and for how long. As a result, one state may appear to have better outcomes than another because of differences in the structures of their TANF programs, not because of any true differences in the outcomes for people receiving assistance.

Some state TANF agencies already have state-specific performance measurement systems that track and measure employment outcomes and apply incentives and consequences. State-level measures are less complicated to develop than potential national measures because there is far less variation within state TANF programs than across them.

Implementing uniform national employment outcome measures poses challenges and potential unintended consequences. State-specific measures may be less challenging. A realistic understanding of the issues of and options for a federal role in measuring TANF employment outcomes can help ACF and other policymakers make informed decisions about how best to promote employment through TANF.

Purpose

This report illustrates the difficulty of developing consistent national measures of employment outcomes in TANF that adhere to principles of good performance measurement. The fundamental challenge is that TANF provides great flexibility for states, so state programs differ dramatically in who receives TANF assistance, what is required of them, what assistance they receive, and for how long. As a result, one state may appear to have better outcomes than another simply because of these differences in the structures of their TANF programs, not because of any true differences in the outcomes for people receiving assistance.

Key Findings and Highlights

The federal government could take the following steps to promote the development of state-specific TANF employment outcome measures:

  • ACF could help states design performance measurement systems consistent with their unique TANF program structures and help them improve their TANF data quality and their capacity for analysis.
  • ACF could facilitate information sharing and collaboration between states interested in developing employment outcome measures and those already doing so.
  • Within statutory constraints, ACF could allow states to conduct demonstrations of new employment measures to facilitate learning about implementing measures and any unintended consequences.

Methods

This report employs the following research methods and sources:

  • Interviews with TANF administrators in seven states (California, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) and New York City. Each of these sites has developed innovative TANF performance measurement systems or has other specific experiences relevant to measuring employment outcomes in the TANF context. These interviews occurred between December 2016 and March 2017.
  • Responses to a question posted in November 2016 to the Peer TA Network, an Office of Family Assistance resource for state TANF administrators, seeking any additional administrators with experiences relevant to the current study. We received responses from and conducted follow-up interviews with a representative from the Economic Services Division of the Vermont Agency of Human Services and a representative from the Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
  • Interviews with experts in TANF, performance measurement, and data analysis.

Citation

Hahn, Heather, Derrick-Mills, Teresa, and Spaulding, Shayne (2018). Measuring Employment Outcomes in TANF, OPRE Report #2018-74, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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