The Politics of Welfare Reform: A Look at the Debates and Controversies Surrounding TANF


A parent's strength is shown in her unwavering commitment to her child's well-being, even in difficult situations.

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Perspectives on TANF and Beyond

Examining the political landscape surrounding these issues is important as we explore the complex world of social welfare reform and TANF. The funding and eligibility requirements for these programs, as well as the role of government in providing assistance to those in need, are all hotly debated topics that significantly impact millions of Americans' lives. With so much at stake, it is crucial that we carefully consider the various political perspectives and approaches to addressing these critical issues. In this article, we will delve into the politics of welfare reform, taking a close look at the debates and controversies surrounding TANF. We will examine the different viewpoints and strategies that shape the ongoing discussions and decisions that affect the lives of many individuals and families.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. TANF is governed by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. This federal law mandates that states encourage employment and self-sufficiency for TANF recipients (Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L. 2018, p. 88).

 North American Free Trade Agreement

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are both related to trade and economic policies. While NAFTA focuses on trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, TANF is a social welfare program in the United States. The connection between the two lies in the broader impact of trade agreements on domestic economies and social welfare programs. For example, trade agreements can influence employment levels and economic conditions, which in turn can affect the need for social welfare programs like TANF.

President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, which allowed companies to move to Mexico for cheaper labor markets. North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a pact between America, Canada, and Mexico. NAFT removed all tariffs and trade restrictions between the three countries. Therefore, companies who moved to Canada or Mexico from America neither paid Tariffs nor concerned themself with trade restrictions (International Trade Administration, July 2020, para. 1-4). 

Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on August 22, 1996. The law encompasses work requirements and a performance bonus to reward states for moving people from welfare to work.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (December 9, 2013), The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had a significant impact on U.S. workers in four primary ways. 

Firstly, it resulted in approximately 700,000 job losses as manufacturing shifted to Mexico. Many of these job losses were concentrated in states such as California, Texas, and Michigan, where manufacturing is a significant industry (p. 1).

The US labor market experienced a loss of 700,000 jobs after the passage of NAFTA. In addition, TANF restricted recipients to a lifetime maximum of five years and required recipients to secure employment within two years. Furthermore, the wealthy benefit from the government removing tariffs, trade restrictions, and performance incentives.

Allocation of Funds For TANF 

Furthermore, in 2013, the allocation of funds for TANF by both federal and state governments amounted to a significant sum of $31.6 billion. 

Children at daycare
Allocation of funds to childcare.

It is noteworthy that a proportion of 28 percent was directed towards cash grants for families, while 72 percent was utilized for supplementary services such as: 

  • childcare, 
  • work-related programs, 
  • and administrative expenses. 

It is also worth mentioning that the federal budget for 2013 was higher than that allocated for the Department of Defense and the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in previous years (p. 121).

Factors that contribute to poverty and welfare dependency

Many factors contribute to poverty and welfare dependency. For example, but not limited to lack of 

These issues can lead to a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency. Policies should address the root causes to create an equitable society, more jobs, and inclusion, and create social programs that facilitate financial stability and social justice.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is designed to address child poverty by providing support to custodial parents and addressing dependency. However, this program can create confusion and financial difficulties for non-custodial parents. In some cases, the non-custodial parent may be unaware that the custodial parent is receiving TANF benefits or that they are the biological father of the child in question. As a result, the father may unknowingly provide financial support to the mother without realizing that she is already receiving benefits. This can lead to financial struggles for both parents and may result in the non-custodial parent being responsible for paying TANF arrears and back support, which could create a challenging financial situation and may not be conducive to fostering a healthy father-child relationship.

Child custody and child support laws have supporters and those who oppose current legislation. While they can provide financial aid for custodial parents, non-custodial parents may feel that child custody laws and the child support system are biased, favoring women and custodial parents more than men and non-custodial parents. 

Most argue that child support and child custody laws are necessary to ensure that the children are placed into the best possible environment and receive needed financial support. Still, the effectiveness and fairness of both systems are in question.

mother with custody of daughter
Providing for your child's future is a gift that keeps on giving.

Opponents of the Current Child Support System Claim it Encourages Relationship Breakdown.

However, those who oppose current legislation for child custody and child support laws may argue that the current system incentivizes women to leave relationships rather than communicate and listen to one another, solve problems, and implement realistic solutions for dealing with issues. 

Another viable solution could be seeking help from a marriage counselor or therapist, which can provide a safe place for negotiations, discussing their issues and concerns, and the willingness to change or to seek a win-win solution.

Furthermore, both women and men remain in abusive relations for various reasons, for example, but not limited to the following, financial limitations and a sense of codependency, which serve as a barrier to leaving an unhealthy or abusive relationship

However, people who remain in such relationships are more likely to become verbally or physically abusive toward one another, creating an unhealthy environment for raising children. Therefore, this in and of itself necessitates policies concerning child custody and child support.

The Five Categories Used to Measure State Child Support Collection Efforts

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act mandated that the Secretary of Health and Human Services collaborate with state-appointed directors of the Title IV-D program to create a revised system for incentivizing state child support enforcement agencies based on their program performance. 

In addition, state child support collection efforts are measured in five categories: 

  • Establishment of paternity, 
  • the establishment of the child support order,
  • collection of current child support owned, 
  • collection on arrears, 
  • and cost-effectiveness (Office of Child Support Services). (October 29, 2018, para. 1).

Federal incentive allocates additional funds to states based on their performance in the five categories measured. When a state or local government spends a dollar on the child support program, it receives 66 cents from the federal government, also called Federal Financial Participation (FFP). 

Furthermore, Title IV enforces child support and establishment of paternity under the Social Security Act (OFFICE OF CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES. May 2, 2017, para. 1). The Personal Responsibility Reconciliation Act.

Father and child holding hands
Relationships between the presumed father and the child 

The Hidden Consequences of Child Support Incentives: Uncovering Cases of Wrongful Paternity

However, there have been cases where the person identified as the biological father was not the biological parent. Therefore, the higher they can get child support payment, the more money states receive from the incentive pool, current support, Arrears collections, and Cost-effectiveness, based on an increase from the previous year. 

Hence, it may not be beneficial for states to award joint custody as each parent would have to bear their own expenses while being responsible for the child during custody. 

Furthermore, the greater the number of established paternities, establishment of child support orders, and collection of child support owned, and the effectiveness of child support agencies, the greater the amount of funding the state gains. 

Currently, state child support programs can keep the incentives they earn without being obligated to use them for state programs. This results in federal investments in child support programs being diverted to other purposes.

The Dark Side of Child Support Incentives: Cases of Misattributed Paternity:

The issue of misattributed paternity has brought to light the darker side of child support incentives. When a man is led to believe that he is the biological father of a child and is subsequently required to pay child support, the consequences can be financially and emotionally devastating for all parties involved.

1. Financial Consequences:

  • Child support payments for a child who is not biologically related can lead to significant financial strain.
  •  Legal fees involved in disputing paternity and seeking resolution can be substantial.
  • Potential loss of inheritance rights for the child in cases of mistaken paternity.

2. Emotional Consequences:

  • Strained relationships between the presumed father and the child upon discovering the mistake.
  • Emotional distress and turmoil for all parties involved, including the child, the presumed father, and the mother.
  • Trust issues and psychological impact stemming from the revelation of mistaken paternity.

The Disconnect Between Child Support and Visitation Enforcement 

 Child support laws don’t enforce visitation. Visitation rights must be enforced through separate courts.

Child support laws need to ensure visitation and joint custody rights. While Federal agencies are not required to allocate incentives earned towards state programs to enforce visitation and joint custody, measurement to enforce these rights would benefit children and facilitate the development of paternal relationships and perhaps reunification of the family unit.

A Fair Approach: Non-Custodial Parents Who Pay Child Support Deserve Child Tax Credits

Furthermore, non-custodial parents who pay child support should also receive child tax credits. According to the IRS. (July 25, 2023),” The Child Tax Credit helps families with qualifying children get a tax break. Many believe that non-custodial parents who pay child support should receive a child tax credit because they still support their children through child support payments. Furthermore, they argue that it is unfair for custodial parents to receive the total amount. In addition, they could be an additional incentive for non-custodial parents to continue working, be an active part of their child’s life, and assist in reducing the poverty rate of non-custodial parents living in poverty. Furthermore, for struggling parents who own back support or are in arrears, these funds could be used to reduce their arrears.

Although it is true that men and married couples could technically qualify for AFDC and are eligible for TANF, beneficiaries of public assistance have always been, and will continue to be, almost entirely women and their children (Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L. 2018, p. 102). Unfortunately, non-custodial parents and single adults without children who are citizens of the United States are neglected by the social welfare system. It is important to ensure that all individuals have access to resources and opportunities to reach their full potential.

Should policymakers consider ways to address these issues and aid those in need? 

A program that utilizes the poverty guidelines as part of their eligibility requirements according to the Department of Health and human services. 

Several federal, state, and local agencies use the Department of Health and human services poverty guidelines as an eligibility criterion.

  • For example, but not limited to the supplemental nutrition food assistance program and Medicaid (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (November 5, 2019, para 1). Furthermore, non-custodial parents are less likely to receive assistance from social welfare programs than custodial parents when experiencing hardships. Means-tested programs consider gross income, with regards to child support payment, or net income. In addition, child support agencies use gross income in their calculation to determine the amount of monthly child support payments. Therefore, if the non-custodial parent seeks additional employment or part-time employment, child support is recalculated, and their child support payments increase.

How State and Local Governments Handle Child Support Enforcement

According to The United States Department of Justice. (May 28, 2020), child support enforcement, for the most part, is handled by state and local governments. Child support is managed by the Federal government only in limited cases due to the Federal Child Support Enforcement Act of 1992. The objective is to deter non-payment of court order child support. In addition, state agencies and law enforcement felt the penalties were not harsh enough; therefore, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act (DPPA) was signed into law in 1998 (para 1-2).

- Understanding The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act

The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act is a federal law in the United States that imposes criminal penalties on parents who willfully fail to make child support payments for their children residing in another state. The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act imposes criminal penalties on parents who willfully fail to make child support payments for their children living in another state. 

The penalties can include: 

  • fines, 
  • imprisonment, 
  • and seizure of assets. 

Parents need to fulfill their financial responsibilities towards their children to avoid facing legal consequences (The United States Department of Justice. (May 28, 2020, para. 2 & CONGRESS. GOV. 06/24/1998, p. 1).

Understanding the Historical Impact of Policies: The Value of Social Workers

Politicians recognize the value of social workers in promoting policies that create a fair and inclusive society. Social workers deeply understand the historical impact of policies on individuals and communities, such as Aid for Families with Dependent Children. 

Their expertise and commitment to social work principles make them essential partners in policy development and evaluation. Policies influence how people access resources and opportunities and who is eligible to receive assistance from the social welfare system.

Social work is a profession that heavily relies on policies. Social workers must develop critical skills to conduct policy analysis and research effectively. Social workers recognize that understanding policy is vital. Therefore, social workers utilize a policy-based model. Policy practice is a critical aspect of macro practice in social work. It involves advocating, developing, and analyzing policies that align with social work values, such as social justice (Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L., 2018, p. 16).

1. Social workers can advocate on a micro level for political change. 

A social worker can advocate on a micro level for political change regarding TANF and current child support laws by working directly with clients impacted by these policies. 

  • They can provide education and information on their rights and options and help them navigate the system to access their needed resources. 
  • Social workers can also document and report any barriers or injustices their clients face and use this information to inform policymakers and advocate for change. 
  • Additionally, social workers can join or create coalitions with other organizations and professionals who share their goals and work together to influence policy decisions and create a more just and equitable system.

2. Social workers can advocate on a macro level for political change.

Social workers can advocate for political change regarding TANF and current child support laws at a macro level by engaging in policy development and analysis. This includes: 

  • Researching and analyzing current policies and their impact on vulnerable populations and identifying areas where change is needed. 
  • Social workers can also work with lawmakers and policymakers to develop new policies that better serve the needs of their clients and promote social justice. 
  • Additionally, social workers can engage in public education and awareness campaigns to build support for policy change and promote a more just and equitable system.

Ways to address the issues faced by non-custodial parents and individuals in need.

It is important for policymakers to consider ways to address the issues faced by non-custodial parents and individuals in need. Here are some suggestions:

  • Ensure that means-tested programs take into account child support payments when determining eligibility for assistance.
  • Develop policies that offer child tax credits for non-custodial parents who pay child support.
  • Implement policies that provide resources and opportunities for struggling parents to reduce their arrears.
  • Develop policies that reduce poverty rates.

By considering these policies, policymakers can help ensure that all individuals have access to resources and opportunities to reach their full potential, regardless of their status.


I believe that Temporary Assistance to Needy Families successfully achieves its goal of reducing child poverty and adult dependency on social welfare systems. There is no one-size-fits-all when dealing with poverty and social welfare reform. Therefore, whether an individual is assisted through the social welfare system or any specific form of public assistance, it ultimately should be based on the individual circumstance. Currently, TANF is designed to provide temporary financial assistance to families with children. Single people also pay taxes.

The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act needs to be amended. It is unreasonable to expect someone to pay child support while incarcerated, lack a driver's license to commute to work, or cannot afford transportation to maintain a stable job. This law penalizes parents who genuinely want to support and be involved in their children's lives.

The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act has been criticized for its negative connotation and its tendency to stigmatize parents who are struggling to meet their obligations. Additionally, it has been argued that the act does little to help non-custodial parents. In fact, it may discourage them from seeking assistance from child support agencies, as it can be seen as a deterrent or an obstacle to finding a positive resolution.


Economic Policy Institute, (December 9, 2013). North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

CONGRESS. GOV. (06/24/1998.). H.R.3811 - Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 105th Congress (1997-1998).

International Trade Administration, (July 2020). North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

IRS. (July, 25, 2023). Child Tax Credit. 

OFFICE OF CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES. (October 29, 2018). Child Support Enforcement Incentive Funding.

OFFICE OF CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES. (May 2, 2017). Child Support Funding: 2008-2016. 

Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L. (2018). The Policy-Based Profession (7th ed.). Pearson Education (US).

The United State Department of Justice. (May 28, 2020). Child Support EnforcementU.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (November 5, 2019). Programs that Use the Poverty Guidelines as a Part of Eligibility Determination.

Author: Gregory M. Green

Author: Gregory M. Green is the author of various topics in the Social Sciences section of Inveigle MagazineHe writes on informative topics that bring awareness to the world. We are so pleased to have him as a part of Inveigle Magazine's Team. Follow us @Inveiglemagazi1. Follow me on LinkedIn. 

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