The program known as ‘welfare’ barely exists in Oklahoma

worried mother and baby

From its creation in 1934 to the mid-1990s, the Assistance to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was a major component of America’s safety net, providing cash assistance to low-income families with children. In 1996, President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress approved reforms to “end welfare as we know it.” AFDC became Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with much stricter limits on who can receive aid and for how long and much greater leeway for state officials to use federal funds for welfare as they see fit.

Prior to the 1996 welfare reforms, AFDC was an entitlement like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. That means any qualifying family who applied could receive benefits, and spending on the program went up and down based on need. Under the new TANF rules, recipients must satisfy a work or training requirement, and they can lose benefits for not meeting these requirements. TANF benefits to families also have a strict time limit — recipients may receive benefits for a maximum of five years over their lifetime, unless they meet limited criteria for a hardship extension.

Another major change with welfare reform is that TANF funds are now provided as block grants to states. Instead of going up and down based on need, the total amount of the basic TANF block grant has remained at $16.5 billion per year since 1996. Due to inflation, its real value has fallen by one-third since that year.

States also are no longer required to use most welfare funds on basic cash assistance. They can spend the TANF block grant on programs to meet any of four goals:

  1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes;
  2. Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage;
  3. Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies; or
  4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

The block grant format allows states to decide which areas to fund or if they will fund them at all.

Oklahoma’s Use of TANF Funds

Oklahoma, unfortunately, is an example of how basic assistance through TANF has severely eroded over time. In 1997, Oklahoma spent $95.1 million on basic cash assistance. In 2014, the state only spent $18.1 million on basic cash assistance. Over that time, Oklahoma’s cash assistance to families has plummeted 80.8 percent, even before inflation.


Oklahoma is one of just 10 states that spends less than 10 percent of TANF funding on basic cash assistance. We spend so little on cash assistance for a couple reasons. First, Oklahoma provides very small payments per family. Oklahoma’s maximum benefit is $292 per month for a single-parent family of three, or just 18 percent of the federal poverty line. In contrast, the national median of a maximum payment for a family of that size is $429 per month.

Secondly, Oklahoma provides these already small payments to very few families. In fiscal year 2015, a monthly average of just 2,469 adults were enrolled in TANF in Oklahoma, a tiny fraction of the more than 370,000 Oklahomans age 18 to 64 living in poverty. Because of the stringent work requirements and time limit coupled with the low cash assistance, families may opt to voluntarily leave or may see their benefits terminated, even though they are still living in poverty.

One area that Oklahoma has dedicated significant TANF funds to is child care. In 1997 Oklahoma spent nearly $16 million on child care; in 2014, that had increased to $63 million. While this is a significant increase, spending on childcare has steadily decreased since its peak at $124 million in 2009. This decrease has resulted in less children having access to childcare.

If Oklahoma is not spending TANF funds on low-income families’ most pressing needs, where is the money allocated? Some of the money goes to programs that speak to goals 3 and 4 of TANF: pregnancy prevention and two-parent family formation. Some money is transferred out of TANF to the Social Service Block Grant (SSBG) and Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). SSBG and CCDBG spending in 2014 was $43.6 million.

Another area where Oklahoma uses TANF funds is Authorized Under Prior Law (AUPL) + Other. This category includes spending areas that were acceptable under AFDC and other non-assistance programs. AUPL funds are used for wide ranging activities, including domestic violence services, in-home child welfare services, funds to faith-based organizations, disability services, and emergency assistance.

Because the block grant format of TANF allows states substantial leeway to allocate funds, the nature of the program varies dramatically from state to state. Oklahoma’s use of TANF funds falls far short of providing a true safety net for the poorest Oklahoma families. The current trend of spending less money on the core purposes of TANF may shrink the population of “welfare” recipients, but it does nothing to address poverty. The diverting of those funds, while permissible under the law, means that “welfare” barely exists in Oklahoma.2014-TANF-Spending

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10 thoughts on “The program known as ‘welfare’ barely exists in Oklahoma

  1. Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that many Oklahomans are proud of these numbers. Ironically, Christians, who were the first to praise this as fulfillment of the biblical injunctions in the New Testament to care for the poor, the weak, the widows and children, are now at the forefront of those calling for its abolition as an affront to the Old Testament instruction that we must all earn our living by the sweat of our brows. I’ve been a lifelong follower of Christ for most of my 67 years, and, while I believe firmly in the separation of church and state, both my Christianity and my deep-seated human morality cry out against this hypocrisy. If we don’t care for the less fortunate among us, we’ve abandoned one of the most valuable bits of decency that makes us worthy of breath.

  2. I am the coordinator of a WorkPrep program in Oklahoma County that serves TANF clients seeking vocational training. TANF provides them 12 months of training in program of their choice. We also assist with job readiness (clothing, interviews, resumes) and stay with them until they are successfully employed. While this seems like the perfect solution for single parents in poverty to move ahead in life, there are many serious obstacles to their success. For example, the number of TANF clients applying for TANF has been declining at an extreme rate. Many of us have 50% less students than 3 years ago. This decrease aligns with the mandatory drug testing laws for TANF applicants that went into affect in 2013. The applicants are told that if they have a “positive” test, Child Welfare could come and take their children. This does nothing to help our poverty crisis, nor does address that we have a drug problem in our state. Before 2013, TANF would make it mandatory that to receive TANF when positive for drugs, they would have to agree to a substance abuse program. Once they received help and were “clean” they could be on TANF and receive vocational training. This makes much more since than running them off in fear. I understand the theory-that drug abusers should not be able to receive “welfare” but we are not fixing poverty or drug issues by sweeping them under the rug. Another serious issue is the funding cuts that has ended any transportation assistance for our clients. Obviously, people in poverty have transportation issues and cannot move forward if they cannot get to school. Bus Passes are still provided, but for some it can take 3 hours by city bus to travel to the programs that are located outside the downtown-metro area. The OKC Metro bus system just isn’t a solution for many people who live in outlying areas.
    Statistically, these issues actually look good on paper! Less TANF applicants,less positive drug users, less need for transportation. We know this isn’t true! By ignoring social issues we do not make them go away. It was obvious by your article that the funding is not going where it should. It was also well-stated that this program barely exists in Oklahoma. Oklahomans deserve better, children in poverty deserve a way out, and by ignoring it we are creating a storm for the future.

  3. Having to start your life over again at 60 , SUCKS ! –
    2012: had a house , job , 401K , truck. Jan 2013 lose job. 2014: no savings, house, truck or income. By 2017: Have been reduced to .26 acres of ‘raw’ land with no power or water , living in a 7×14′ cargo trailer. Once I got the trailer on the property, sold the truck and made some improvements. (4) solar panels gives me some power , not enough for a/c but at least for a small fan to move the air over me , water barrels to collect rain water and improving the trailer to live in. The S.N.A.P. program at least allows me to eat, though the nearest store is a 2 1/2 hour walk one-way. At 60, to young for Soc. Sec. , so will have to exist another two years like this before any steady income. The VA can help me with medical , but only if I can get to one of their facilities ( uhh no vehicle ) The only reason I can even tell my story is because of a neighbor down the road letting me use their computer , they are moving out real soon so I will have no access to the net. Single people like myself have it the worst. I want to work but no one will hire me and with no vehicle now definitely no job. The programs to help the poor are only good for “LOW” income not “NO” income poor. So those like me are SOL. At least I have enough money left to pay my property taxes for the next few years until Soc. Sec can kick in and then the government wont come in and take away what little I have for non-payment of those taxes. What the ‘Powers’ that be have in store for me I don’t know, but dang . . . a no income existence ??

  4. If you are unable to work where is your social security or military disability income? With that you qualify for housing. I wish you well.

  5. The elderly and disabled just got their got their hours cut to be abled to be cared be cared their homes. But the TANF program got 16 million. Why should the elderly take the cuts instead if the of the babies and children born out of wedlock? I am tired of taking care of other people’s children..

  6. I am not seeing why someone s bringing up being a Christian. First off there are 4200 religions on this planet and they all cant be right. Secondly those poor people have families and where given the same chance as anyone else. I grew up with two brothers and a sister in a single bedroom home. My mother worked everyday to provide and she did a wonderful job raising us. She had help from my grandparents occasionally as well as her siblings. We were all happy and had no problem making lives for ourselves. I brought myself out of that way of life and could care less about helping out any adult what so ever. Elderly and children require that help however it should never be cash bailouts. I only believe in food and necessary utilities to assist in living. No one needs cash to help support smoking, drugs, cell phones, internet, alcohol, or gambling. I understand there are not enough jobs out there to support everyone getting what they want. However life isn’t about the wants, its about the needs.

  7. Danny,
    Are you serious? ‘Same Chance’? BS. What planet are you from? Your 6th sentence broke your survival of the fittest predication. Your illusions of the past may very well include details you do not know. ‘I brought myself out’ – self made man, are you? Who paid for your teachers? Who paid for the roads? etc., etc. Meanwhile teachers are getting greedier, Corporate Mafia – greedier; all playing the ‘we are so poor’ card so they may excuse their tax dodges. And in the back of the bus, are the unrepresented peons from whom the fed/state steals from under color of law. Yeah, tell me how it is.

  8. The state has made a new law and dropped required income lower. So if you gross over 2100. High copay for daycare. And no grocery assistance. Which is roughly 1200 plus “gross” plus any support for your children.. basically all single parents are penalized for being poor.. my rent is $825 I make 19000 a year. Thier dad makes 67k. But 2100 is pushing it and they won’t help much which is sad. Because that’s $10 hourly wage… “Um Good Ole Boy supporter’s”, and rich people will stare at you with an ugly face if they see u with kids and a help card. It’s frowned on for sure. They don’t actually care what your net is. They add gross to it all. So they don’t have to do paperwork and more cases bc they are flooded… That’s all folks “the End”

  9. My homelessness and life wipes it’s ass with all the grandstanding and empty platitudes here. I will receive help, or I will not. Expedited SSI can’t even fix my issues. As fas as religion and politics both go, and I have background in the former: “Whoever is in charge up there, we are still screwed and doing for ourselves down here.” That is all I got. Going to mourn my being a part of the human species now…and ponder the source of my next meal.

  10. I believe there are many individuals and families that need assistance and are unable to get it while other people abuse the system at every turn. There needs to be more job training and employment requirements. If you are able to go and buy beer and cigs and sit on the porch all day while 3 of your school aged kids run around in the yard filthy while you curse at them something is wrong with the system.

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