Lawmakers prepare to discuss what Tennessee should do with $741M welfare windfall


The surplus of funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program, also known as Families First, was first reported by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Tennessean last year. The program is administered by the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

The TANF program provides a roughly $240 monthly cash benefit for eligible families for a maximum of 16 months. The average monthly wage of employed participants was $920, as of September.

About 15,500 families received TANF benefits in September, down from more than 17,500 in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tennessee.

In budget hearings with Gov. Bill Lee last week, outgoing TDHS Commissioner Danielle Barnes explained that unemployment income counts against income requirements for TANF while providing a higher benefit, prompting many families to transition off of the TANF program while a family member was unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Families served by TANF have continued to steadily decline,” Barnes said. “We do know that many of these individuals were also eligible for unemployment during the same time. The amount of the unemployment benefit that an individual received counted as income against TANF and emergency cash assistance. I think it’s also important to know that the benefit for TANF pales in comparison with what an individual receives on unemployment.”

The decline in TANF participation didn’t begin in March. Over the past nine years, the number of families receiving TANF benefits has decreased by nearly 75%. In September 2011, more than 61,000 families participated in TANF – comparable to the average number of families on the TANF program served by TDHS since 1997.

Over the past decade, requirements for program participation have increased. In 2014, the Tennessee Legislature implemented drug testing requirements for TANF participants, as well as penalties for participants who failed to follow program rules. Additional eligibility changes passed in 2015.

In 2018, the Legislature increased the benefit amount for the first time in more than 20 years – a move that increased the average monthly benefit from about $165 to the current $240, according to department data.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, appointed a legislative TANF Working Group last November to discuss where the surplus came from and what to do with it. Both plan for the bipartisan working group to continue meeting next year.

“We’ll continue to look at creating fiscally responsible solutions to support Tennessee’s working families as they move away from government assistance and become self-reliant,” said Doug Kufner, a spokesperson for Sexton. To read full article: