Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Caseloads Early in the Pandemic

Experiences Varied by State

A mother and daughter walk together while holding hands.

National Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseloads rose from March to June 2020, but assistance varied based on differing state policies.


The Issue

The number of families turning to the National Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in the beginning of the pandemic grew by more than 75,000. However, by October 2020, caseloads had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Key Findings

  • In March 2020, national TANF caseloads rose through June before declining.

    •  By October 2020, caseloads dipped below pre-pandemic levels, with 865,000 families enrolled in the program.
  • A wide variation in state caseloads was observed, from February 2020 through June 2020:

    • 13 states saw caseloads grow by at least 5 percent.
    • 22 states saw caseloads decline by at least 5 percent.
    • 16 states observed caseload changes totaling less than 5 percent.
  • The variation in state-level caseload changes illustrates that access to cash assistance is largely dependent on the state someone lives in.

    • Application requirements, benefit amounts, time limits, and work requirements, aid or impede TANF fund access.
    • States that waived provisions like in-person interviews, work requirements, and eligibility re-determinations observed larger caseload growth.


Researchers determine that TANF caseloads have been declining since the program’s inception. The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented disruption for families across the country. Researchers state the national TANF caseload in the spring of 2020 was an anomaly on an otherwise downward trajectory.

About the Urban Institute

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.