Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Services - Serving Refugee Families through TANF: Lessons from the Field

Publication Date: June 14, 2018
Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Services Serving Refugee Families through TANF: Lessons from the Field Cover

Download Report

Download Report PDF (4,297.57 KB)
  • File Size: 4,297.57 KB
  • Pages: N/A
  • 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?
  2. Are there innovative strategies being implemented to help refugees obtain employment and ultimately achieve economic self-sufficiency in the United States?
  3. To what extent and in what ways are states integrating or coordinating TANF, RCA, and associated services to better serve the diverse needs of the refugees?

State and local TANF agencies serve customers with a wide range of educational backgrounds, skills, service needs, and barriers to self-sufficiency. Refugee families with children are among those who receive cash assistance through the TANF program. Many refugees with children arrive at TANF agencies with special challenges related to their refugee status, including limited English proficiency; lack of familiarity with written forms generally and applications for government services specifically; and, for some, very limited education and work experience.

At the same time, TANF agency staff face a number of challenges providing services to refugees, including: 1) addressing language barriers in the provision of services; 2) tailoring employment services for refugees’ wide range of educational and skill levels; and 3) helping refugees balance their TANF work requirements and their need to obtain adequate English language skills in a short time period.

However, states (and some counties) have considerable flexibility to design their TANF programs to better serve refugees. For example, they can modify application processes, tailor employment services, or prioritize English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction in refugees’ employment plans.


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

The TANF-RCA study identified four key strategies TANF agencies can implement to help refugee families participate in TANF services and transition to self-sufficiency:

  1. Provide specialized and culturally appropriate support during the TANF application process.
  2. Ensure access to adequate ESL training through integration with TANF programming.
  3. Provide culturally appropriate and individualized employment services.
  4. Help refugees with professional skills and credentials earned and recognized in their home country obtain employment in their field.


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.


Gaffney, Angela, with Mary Farrell, Sam Elkin, and Robin Koralek. (2018). Understanding the Intersection Between TANF and Refugee Cash Assistance Services—Serving Refugee Families through TANF: Lessons from the Field, OPRE Report #2018-57, 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: