Fewer families are applying for TANF, despite being eligible

Administrators suspect it’s an effect of federal relief

By: - August 23, 2021 6:00 am

The expanded child tax credit is expected to lower caseload numbers even more. (Photo by Mathieu Turle on Unsplash)

While most government-run safety net programs felt the strain of increased demand during the pandemic, one program designed to help the poorest families with children shrank significantly instead.

The number of people using Nevada’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has been consistently dropping over the past year. State administrators believe the drop is a result of federal assistance being provided through pandemic relief programs.

“We don’t have validated data about the caseload drop,” says Robert Thompson, a deputy administrator at the Nevada Department of Welfare and Social Services, “but it’s a generally held belief. I’ve spoken with our federal partners. We are seeing the same thing in other states. … The correlation is there.”

One of the most prominent programs to assist families, the expanded child tax credit, only began disbursing money to households in July, so its impact on Nevada safety net programs hasn’t been documented yet. But officials expect the tax credit to lower TANF caseloads as it eases strains on family finances.

In May 2021 -- the most recent month available on the state’s online database -- TANF reported a caseload of 5,269. In February 2020 -- the last full month before the pandemic began -- the caseload sat at 7,977.

Numbers did rise slightly in the first months of the pandemic. They peaked in May 2020 at 8,886. But since then the numbers have only declined.

The average monthly caseload from January to May of 2021 was 5,751.

The average monthly caseloads was 7,805 in 2020 and 8,356 in 2019.

The pandemic has brought to Nevada an unprecedented amount of federal assistance, including expanded unemployment benefits and three rounds of stimulus checks that went directly to people. Those things may have influenced people’s participation in TANF over the past year.

Now, advance payments of the expanded child tax credit are expected to further impact caseload numbers. Part of the American Rescue Plan, the expanded child tax credit is providing parents with monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child. The first infusion of cash was distributed mid-July and delivered $143 million to 330,000 Nevada families. The second round should have hit mailboxes and bank accounts this week.

“It does not impact (TANF) eligibility,” says Thompson of the child tax credit. “It just reduced the crisis at home.”

Because TANF recipients by design have children and are living in poverty, they should all be eligible for the child tax credit payments. That means the child tax credit will likely have an outsized influence on enrollment compared to other social programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which serves a much larger swath of the population.

SNAP has not seen a drastic drop in enrollment during the pandemic. On the contrary, caseloads in that program sharply rose, as did they in Nevada Medicaid.

The expanded child tax credit as passed in the ARP only applies to 2021. Unless Congress makes the changes permanent -- which is a possibility being considered as part of reconciliation legislation -- the last of the advance payments will be in December 2021.

Thompson says the state is prepared to accomodate a spike in applications and caseloads next year. Any money saved by the state due to decreased demand in TANF this year must, by federal law, be banked in program reserves and rolled over to the next year.

If no spike happens and TANF numbers continue to drop, Thompson says the state would likely reevaluate the program’s efficiency and make whatever adjustments deemed necessary. President Joe Biden and other Democrats are pushing the expanded child tax credit, citing research that it could reduce child poverty by half.

While national politics plays out, Thompson and other nonpartisan state administrators are emphasizing that the child tax credit payments -- no matter how large -- do not affect someone’s eligibility for TANF or SNAP. That money is not considered reportable income.

“We know we have eligible Nevadans who aren’t applying for all of our programs,” said Thompson. “We ask that anybody who needs SNAP, or TANF, or Medicaid, please go to Access Nevada and apply for them. Let us do our job.”

Thompson says that despite the challenges of the pandemic the state has been largely successful in processing applications and getting assistance out to people who need it. SNAP and TANF have average processing times of around 13 days. Medicaid’s wait time is a few days longer -- 17 days.

People who are currently enrolled in TANF will in “late fall” receive an additional $185 per child, says Thompson. Administrators received the greenlight for the one-off payment program from the Interim Finance Committee on Wednesday. It will cost $2.5 million -- paid for with federal grant money -- and benefit more than 13,500 Nevada children.

TANF also received approval to spend $150,000 on diapers and baby wipes, which they would partner with an existing program to hand out to eligible families.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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