Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance

Publication Date: May 24, 2018
Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Cover

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  • Published: 2018


Research Questions

  1. What do we know about how different states and local sites (e.g., counties) administer benefits and services for refugees through TANF and RCA and to what extent and in what ways are states integrating or coordinating TANF, RCA, and associated services to serve the diverse needs of refugees?
  2. Are there innovative strategies being implemented to help refugees obtain employment and ultimately achieve economic self-sufficiency in the United States?
  3. What data are currently collected by states, local sites, and service providers regarding refugee services and their self-sufficiency outcomes?

Since 1975, the United States has resettled more than three million refugees whose diversity of skills, education, and culture requires that public and private organizations assisting them be able to provide a wide range of services. Upon arrival in the United States, two federally funded cash assistance programs help low-income refugees on their path to self-sufficiency: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for those with dependent minor children and Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) for those who do not qualify for TANF. Both programs are funded and administered by the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States, however, have broad flexibility in implementing TANF and RCA programs and the related employment services, and as a result programs vary by state.

While refugees make up a small proportion of the TANF caseload, they may require more intensive services reflecting their status and particular needs. Coordination with resettlement agencies and refugee-serving organizations more accustomed to working with refugees may ensure appropriate services are provided. Research on how refugee-serving programs collaborate to provide assistance and help refugees obtain employment has been limited. Service providers seeking to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency in a short time-frame need promising strategies for better serving refugees.


The study’s main purpose was to learn how state and local systems serve refugees through TANF and RCA, how state and program-level staff coordinate the delivery of services provided to refugees, and how TANF and RCA programs and practices aim to foster positive employment outcomes and refugee self-sufficiency. In addition, this study explored the availability of existing data that could be analyzed to better understand refugee services under TANF and RCA.

Key Findings and Highlights

Key findings from the report include:

  • The unique characteristics of the refugee population present a number of challenges to agencies and organizations serving them. These challenges include linguistic barriers, cultural differences between newly arriving refugees and other program participants, specific policies and processes that apply to refugees, and the heterogeneity among refugees, who arrive with a wide range of skills and education, from educated professionals to laborers who are unable to read or write in their home language.
  • The types of organizations administering cash assistance and employment services for TANF and RCA recipients vary by state and by program. In most states, local public assistance agency staff determine refugees’ eligibility for both TANF and RCA; in some states, resettlement agencies determine eligibility for and administer RCA. In some, RCA recipients and many TANF recipients receive refugee-specific employment services; in others, TANF-receiving refugees participate in employment services alongside non-refugees.
  • Refugee-specific organizations are often better equipped to work with refugees than are public assistance agencies. Agency staff serving the general population often lack the specialized knowledge, language skills, and experience working with refugees that refugee-serving organizations (RSOs) possess. Some agencies compensate for this by increasing coordination with RSOs or by contracting with them to provide TANF employment services.
  • Providers have developed various strategies for helping refugees find employment. Employment services for refugees typically combine job readiness assistance and English language instruction and focus on rapid employment. Examples of other strategies include specialized programs for high-skilled refugees and more intensive job development than is typical in general employment services programs.
  • Data exist that could help researchers and program administrators better understand the effectiveness of strategies for serving refugees. However, the nature of the data and the types of systems in which they are stored vary by state, and researchers cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach to obtain data on refugee cash assistance and employment services from states or programs serving refugees.


The study gathered information from three sources:

  • Consultations with non-federal experts and federal program staff.
  • An online survey administered in January 2016 to 51 State Refugee Coordinators (in the 49 states with refugee resettlement programs, plus the District of Columbia and California’s San Diego County, which administers its own program)
  • Site visits to eight localities serving refugees, conducted in 2016, which involved in-depth interviews with managers and staff at agencies and organizations serving refugees, and focus groups with refugees served.


Elkin, Sam, Mary Farrell, Robin Koralek, and Hannah Engle (2018). Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Services, Final Report, OPRE Report # 2018-42. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Individuals and families unable to live in their home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This report uses the term refugee to refer to all populations eligible for U.S. refugee services, including asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, Amerasians, and victims of a severe form of trafficking.
Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA):
A program administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Administration for Children and Families that provides cash assistance to refugees who meet the income eligibility requirements for TANF but do not have dependent children.
Refugee-serving organization (RSO):
Resettlement agencies and other community-based organizations that specialize in serving refugees.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF):
The primary cash assistance program for low-income families with at least one dependent child. It is a federal block grant administered to states by the Office of Family Assistance within the Administration for Children and Families.
Current as of: