Abstract: Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) Participation before and after First Time Birth (Society for Social Work and Research 28th Annual Conference - Recentering & Democratizing Knowledge: The Next 30 Years of Social Work Science)

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Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) Participation before and after First Time Birth

Sunday, January 14, 2024
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
David Rothwell, Associate Professor, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR

TANF is the only safety net program that exclusively targets families and children and, despite declines in real funding, remains an essential part of the American social welfare system (Fusaro & Gewirtz, 2022). A first-born child brings financial changes to low-income families such as new demands for food and care. Further, incomes decline as mothers exit work in the context of most workers lacking access to paid leave (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021). A better understanding of how mothers navigate TANF around the time of first childbirth has implications for future paid family leave policy.

Prior work on a select small sample of TANF participants suggests some low-income mothers may be using TANF as a paid leave program around the time of childbirth (Ybarra, 2013). The purpose of this study is to refine our understanding of TANF by describing patterns of TANF participation before and after birth with longitudinal population data. By focusing on TANF enrollment timing and duration we gain insights into how TANF is used during this critical family life course transition.


The study used administrative data across health and social services in Oregon based on births between 2016 to 2017. Birth records were linked to TANF participation from 24 months before to 24 months after the birth creating a study that spanned 2014 to 2019. Descriptive analyses were employed to understand TANF participation at monthly intervals. TANF spells were analyzed with software developed by the Family Self-Sufficiency Data Center at Chapin Hall. Multivariate regression and sequence analysis (Aisenbrey & Fasang 2010) was used to predict factors associated with TANF participation and produce multidimensional patterns of program entry and exit.


Between two years before and after birth, 13.1% (n=4346) of birth mothers participated in TANF. Using Medicaid coverage at birth as an intent-to-treat restriction for low income population, about 1.7%, 6.2%, and 9.8% of low-income mothers were on TANF at two years prior, birth, and two years after birth, respectively. TANF participants were younger and with less education compared to other low-income mothers. Age and race/ethnicity were not associated with TANF uptake.

Across the period there were 39,505 active TANF spells with an average spell length of 6.5 months. Sequence analyses revealed a five-cluster solution best fit the data. The largest cluster was characterized by a bimodal pattern of short-term use (less than 1 year) followed by a second spell within 2 years. The second largest cluster was high and consistent TANF use beginning at birth and continuing for the following 2 years.


This study examines TANF in ways that prior work has not by linking population level data of monthly TANF participation two years before and after first-time birth. This granularity reveals a substantial portion of low-income mothers rely on TANF, with a major spike in participation shortly after birth. As states consider and enact paid family leave laws, this newly identified segment of the TANF population is most likely to substitute paid leave wage replacement for TANF benefits.