Abstract: Examining TANF Program's Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis in California (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

89P Examining TANF Program's Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis in California

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
MinJee Keh, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Kimberly Salazar, Undergraduate Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Yu-Ling Chang, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background and Purpose

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC) program to move families from "welfare to work." Prior research shows that the enforcement of time limits and strict work requirements has decreased caseloads, raising concern about the program's accountability for serving low-income families with children during economic recessions. However, limited research has analyzed the program's responses to the COVID-19 crisis despite its disproportionate impact on low-income single-mother families who suffer from economic hardship, unstable employment, and challenges of balancing work and caregiving.

This study examines the changes in TANF rules and welfare-to-work (WTW) service delivery during the pandemic in California. We ask the following questions: (1) What are the significant policy changes during the pandemic? (2) What are the values underlying the policy changes? (3) How do these policy changes relate to trends in caseload, WTW exemption, sanction, and service utilization?


We conduct a mixed-method case study on the largest TANF program ¬California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) ¬, which consists of one-third of the national caseload. CalWORKs has a high financial commitment to cash aid and provides various WTW services, allowing researchers to analyze sanction and exemption practices and a wide range of WTW services. First, we use MAXQDA and apply a code system to examine 36 administrative letters and notices issued by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) from March 2020 to March 2021 to identify key changes and underlying values/assumptions. Second, we analyze the monthly caseload trends before and after the onset of the pandemic to assess program accessibility. Third, we generate quarterly WTW service indicators drawn from CDSS administrative data to examine trends in exemption and sanction practices and WTW services from 2018 to 2021.


Findings of document analysis indicate the policy efforts to expand flexibilities on eligibility by suspending determination requirements, extending the time limit, promoting communications other than in-person visits, and granting discretion to counties and caseworkers. The provision of WTW exemptions and strategies to cure sanctions also relax strict work-first requirements. Despite these policy changes, the state-wide caseload shows a continuously decreasing trend except for its temporary increase between March 2020 and May 2020, suggesting limited program accessibility during the pandemic. Our analysis of the WTW services shows a significant decreasing trend in sanction rate by 11%p between the first and last quarters of 2020, aligning with the identified policy changes. However, evidence reveals a decreasing exemption rate by 7%p, contradicting the state government's promotion to expand WTW exemptions.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings highlight the discrepancy between the limited accessibility for potential clients and increased flexibility for existing clients during COVID-19. Despite the policy shifts to promote flexibility, TANF is limited in responding to the economic need. This research provides implications for reforming the time limit and work-first practices to improve equitable access for potential needy families. Future research should examine the client's experiences and challenges of TANF administrators and agencies during the pandemic.