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How to Apply for TANF

How to Apply for TANF

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is a federal program designed to help families with children fulfill their basic needs. It provides assistance to over one million families in the United States per year. You might have heard TANF referred to as “welfare”.


Read on for answers to some of the most common questions about TANF, including eligibility requirements, how much money you might receive each month as a TANF recipient, how to apply, and more. 

What is TANF

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is a federal program designed to accomplish four specific goals:

  1. Provide assistance to families in poverty so that their children can be cared for in their home, or in the home of a relative.
  2. Promote job preparedness, work, and marriage in order to end families’ dependence on government assistance.
  3. Prevent “out-of-wedlock” pregnancies.
  4. Encourage people to form two-parent families. 

The program was started in 1997 to replace an older program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The program has been successful in providing assistance to families and helping parents get back to work, but there is limited evidence to suggest it has been successful in incentivizing marriage and disincentivizing unmarried people from having children. 

TANF Eligibility Requirements

TANF is funded by grants from the federal (national) government, and while there are basic eligibility requirements set by the federal government, the exact requirements vary by state. 


TANF is intended for:

  • Parents with children under the age of 18
  • Pregnant women
  • Children 18 and under who serve as heads of household

In addition to these requirements, TANF recipients must be a resident of the state where they apply for TANF, be a U.S. citizen or legal resident, and have a low or very low income.

In every state, it is required for TANF recipients to be engaged in “work activities” for a certain number of hours per week. Work activities don’t just include traditional jobs (i.e. work performed for wages). Activities like vocational training, job search and job readiness assistance, and community service usually count as well.

The number of hours required to fulfill the work participation requirement varies based on a few different factors. Most single parents are required to work at least 30 hours per week, unless they have a child under the age of six. Single parents with children under the age of six only need to work 20 hours per week. Two-parent households usually have a minimum work requirement of 35 hours per week.  

Some states impose additional restrictions, such as a requirement that children attend school a certain number of days out of the year and maintain a certain GPA. Other states require that family members attend regular health screenings and are up-to-date on immunizations. has a calculator at the bottom of this page to help you determine whether you could be eligible.

What if I don’t fit all of the eligibility requirements?

Even if you don’t think you fit all of the requirements listed above, it may still be worth it to apply. In some cases, if the adults in a family are not eligible, the family may still be able to receive some assistance on behalf of the children in the family. For example, if a parent does not have legal immigration status, or already receives SSI, the adults would be ineligible for TANF, but their children may still be able to receive some assistance.


How much money will I get from TANF?

The amount of money that a family on TANF will receive varies significantly by state. States with the highest TANF payment amounts, based on a monthly payment to a family of three, include: 

  • New Hampshire: $1,086 per month
  • Alaska: $923 
  • California: $878 
  • New York: $789 
  • Maryland: $727 
  • Wyoming: $712 

The states that offer the lowest payment amounts, based on a monthly payment to a family of three, include:

  • Mississippi: $170 per month
  • Arkansas: $204
  • Alabama: $215
  • Louisiana: $240
  • North Carolina: $272
  • Arizona: $280

Other states fall somewhere in the middle. Why so much variation? It’s because each state is able to decide how much of the federal TANF funding to use for cash payments to families. In the states where cash payments are lower, funding may be used for job training or childcare programs instead of leaving it to families to use the cash for what they have determined their own needs to be. You can find out more about how much assistance you may be eligible for by contacting the TANF office in your home state.

What can TANF cash assistance be used for?

In most states, you will receive TANF on a debit card, similar to EBT (food stamps). Each state has its own laws regarding what TANF cash assistance can be used for. Most prohibit the use of TANF for alcohol, tobacco, adult entertainment, casinos, lottery tickets, concert tickets, sporting events, guns, and gun paraphernalia. TANF cash assistance is meant to be used to help meet your family’s basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, childcare, and transportation. Beyond the restrictions explicitly prohibited by law in your state, you are free to use the TANF for whatever you need. 

How long can I stay on TANF?

In every state, TANF recipients can continue to collect their benefit for up to two consecutive years. Families can spend up to five total years on TANF throughout their lifetime if they find themselves in need at another point. 

How can I apply for TANF?

To apply for TANF, you must contact the office that administers TANF in your state. A full listing of contact information for each U.S. state can be found on the Department of Health and Human Services website


TANF is an important program for families experiencing poverty. This is just one way that families can get a leg up as they search and prepare for work, advance in their profession, and build the best life possible for their children. 

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