The U.S. TANF welfare programme (unlike its predecessor, AFDC, which it replaced in 1997) has a hard five-year limit on the total length of time in one’s lifetime that one can receive benefits (and a hard two-year limit on the length of time that one can continuously receive benefits); once the period(s) of time for which one has received TANF benefits add up to five years in aggregate, one is permanently disqualified from ever receiving TANF benefits again in one’s lifetime, irregardless of one’s actual or potential need for aid.

This seems wrong to me, as it sends the message that, if someone is without means for a total of five years or more (and/or two years or more at a time), it must be their own fault, when, in fact, during times of economic hardship, or for households lacking skilled workers with high-grade qualifications, one could easily be forced, despite one’s best efforts to the contrary, into a continuous period of dependence on welfare which could easily exceed two years, and many of these persons and households would have trouble keeping the total length of these periods from hitting the five-year mark - the hard two-year and five-year limits seem to be a way of, in essence, punishing the people most in need of government assistance.

Am I missing something here?

  • 3
    You seem to miss the flip side: that if benefits were continuously available, then there are people who would stay on them.
    – jamesqf
    May 21, 2019 at 4:06
  • 4
    Generic answer: presumably fear of creating welfare trap, I'm not knowledgeable enough about US system to say whether fear is justified in this specific case. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_trap
    – Shadow1024
    May 21, 2019 at 8:03
  • 1
    Aren't there other programs and benefits you can get after that depending on your situation? Or do they literally let you atarve to death May 21, 2019 at 11:24
  • 2
    The T in TANF is for "Temporary." If there were no time limits, it would not be temporary.
    – Joe
    May 21, 2019 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


It appears that Clinton and the Republican majority that actually passed this law both shared a vision of time-limited benefits. It's not terribly well articulated why in the sources I found, but it does seem (as Shadow1024 suggested in a comment) that eliminating a "welfare trap" was the underlying goal.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article you linked:

Conservatives emphasized work requirements and time limits, paying little attention to whether or not families' incomes increased. More specifically, conservatives wanted to impose a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits and provide block grants for states to fund programs for poor families. [...]

Both President Clinton and Congressional Republicans emphasized the need to transform the cash assistance system into a work-focused, time-limited program.

It's citing a Northwestern University IPR newsletter for the first para and a (much longer) CLASP paper for the 2nd; the first source cited has slightly more detail on the immediate debates around TANF:

Ron Haskins, who was a senior Republican staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, started by underscoring the bitterness of the debate.

He read a passage from his book Work Over Welfare describing how Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) equated the Republicans with Nazis for their “mean-spirited” bill that “took food out of the mouths of children.”

“Very few debates in the House have this intensity,” he said, pointing to a shortage of facts and an abundance of emotion. Looking back, Haskins noted that “the radical Republican agenda” consisted of wanting to increase work and marriage to have the greatest impact on poverty. “And this was what welfare reform did,” he said.

Haskins listed the five fundamental changes to welfare: ending cash entitlements, creating block grants, instituting five year time limits, implementing strong work requirements, and applying sanctions. “It is very rare that any program in Washington changes to this degree,” Haskins added.

Some of these changes, such as the five-year time limit, were highly controversial despite the bill’s bipartisan support.

[...; and for the view from the opposite side of the isle]

In crafting the Democrat’s legislative proposal, Ellwood said he and his colleagues defined three core elements: making work pay, enforcing child support payments as a way of making both parents responsible for raising their children, and making welfare “a hand up and not a handout.”

While Republicans and Democrats generally agreed upon and passed the make-work-pay and child support aspects, he said, they differed greatly on how to transition families to— and support them in—the world of work. Clinton originally wanted to provide job training coupled with time limits and subsidized jobs for those having difficulty finding work. Republicans wanted a five-year lifetime time limit on individuals’ welfare benefits and block grants for the states. In the end, the Republican vision passed.

The 2nd source says:

Both the President and Congressional Republicans emphasized the need to transform the cash assistance system into a work-focused, time-limited program. [...]

And give a bit more historical context:

In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it” by requiring families receiving welfare to work after two years. In 1994, the Clinton Administration introduced a welfare reform proposal involving expanded services and requirements intended to increase workforce participation for single parents, along with a requirement that parents participate in a work program as a condition of receiving further assistance after a family had received assistance for two years. The proposal did not advance, and after Republicans attained a Congressional majority in November 1994, the focus shifted toward the Republican proposal to end entitlements to assistance, repeal AFDC and instead provide states with block grants.

The 1996 law repealed AFDC and enacted the structure of TANF block grants. The TANF structure is best understood as a hybrid. States receive a lump sum of money that can be used for an array of purposes. One purpose is to operate a program of assistance for needy families. A set of requirements -- e.g., time limits, work requirements, child support cooperation -- apply to families receiving TANF “assistance,” but not to those receiving other benefits and services funded under the block grant. [...]

Generally, under TANF, most states developed time-limited assistance programs with a strong emphasis on work-related requirements. Most states developed programs in which most or all parents, including parents of very young children, were required to participate in work-related activities; adopted policies under which all cash assistance could be terminated for a violation of program rules; developed policies under which family assistance can be reduced or terminated after a time limit of 60 months or less; [...]

The CLASP paper also attempts to estimate the effects of TANF, but I'm omitting that here since it wasn't the topic of the question.

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