National Immigration Law Center
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TANF Reauthorization


January 31, 2002

Immigrant Priorities for TANF Reauthorization

 TANF reauthorization offers an opportunity to build on the successes of the past five years and to address some of the weaknesses of the nation's anti-poverty strategy. Federal law should be improved so that TANF funds can help more parents find stable employment and provide more effective support for low-income working families, with the ultimate goal of reducing the extent and depth of poverty. To achieve these goals, many important changes are necessary, such as providing increased funding to states, making work requirements, sanctions and time limits more responsive to the needs of parents facing barriers to employment, and rewarding work by applying the time limit only to months in which families receive benefits while not employed. Such improvements to TANF will have a positive impact on all low-income families served by the program, including lawfully present immigrants and persons who are limited English-proficient (LEP).

Immigrant families account for 20 percent of the country's low-wage working families with children. Unfortunately, despite their significant presence in the low-wage workforce, current law prevents many immigrant families from securing assistance and work support services that help other low-income families achieve economic mobility. Immigrants, especially recent entrants, were singled out by the restrictive eligibility rules implemented by the 1996 federal welfare law. These immigrant restrictions apply not only to the TANF block grant, but to other vital work support and safety net programs, including health care programs, food stamps, and SSI. In addition, even when immigrants and persons who are LEP are enrolled in state TANF programs, the needs of these families are not adequately met nor is their transition to the workforce effectively supported. TANF reauthorization cannot meaningfully promote effective economic mobility strategies unless it addresses the needs of immigrant families.

1. Eliminate restrictions that exclude lawfully residing immigrants from Medicaid, SCHIP, food stamps, TANF (including TANF-funded child care, job training, and transportation programs), SSI, housing, and other programs affected by the 1996 welfare law.

  • As taxpayers, immigrants help to pay for the costs of education, roads and national defense. They should not be excluded from programs that could help them attain skills needed to advance in the labor market and provide for a safety net when temporarily unemployed.

  • Immigrants are more likely to hold jobs in low-wage sectors that are sensitive to fluctuations in the economy; access to effective language and training programs can help them move into jobs with higher pay and greater stability.

  • More than one in five children in poverty has at least one immigrant parent. Therefore the nation cannot implement an effective anti-poverty strategy that excludes immigrants and their family members. Work supports and welfare-to-work programs could help reduce child poverty and improve child well-being by speeding the economic mobility of immigrant parents.

  • Since TANF already includes mandatory work requirements and a time limit on assistance, both of which apply regardless of immigration status, additional eligibility restrictions that apply specifically to immigrants serve no useful purpose.

2. Eliminate TANF eligibility and work participation rules that limit participation by low-income two-parent families.

  • States should not be permitted to discriminate against two-parent families in establishing eligibility for benefits and services under TANF. A welfare reform demonstration program in Minnesota that eliminated restrictive eligibility rules for two-parent families and provided financial incentives for work to both single- and two-parent families increased marital stability and marriage rates.

  • Rules that limit participation by two-parent families disproportionately affect low-income immigrant families, which are twice as likely as low-income U.S.-born families to be headed by two parents.

3. Expand state flexibility to count English language instruction as a TANF work activity.

  • Immigrants who are proficient in English earn more than immigrants with limited proficiency in English. A Los Angeles County study found that two years after leaving AFDC, persons with limited proficiency in English had worked about the same number of quarters as other adults, but had lower earnings ($5571 compared to $7713 for whole group).

  • The welfare law established work "participation rates" for families receiving TANF assistance. It provided that states would be penalized if they failed to ensure that families receiving assistance meet the rates. To count toward the work participation rates, individuals must participate in one of a listed set of work-related activities. Programs that increase proficiency in English-—including English as a Second Language (ESL) and Vocational ESL (VESL)—are not explicitly listed as one of these activities. Several states allow ESL as "education related to employment"—which is on the federal list—but they do not allow this activity to be counted unless an individual is already working at least 20 hours a week. To signal that it considers improving English proficiency as no less important than other activities, Congress should make ESL an allowable pre-employment activity.

4. Provide grants to states and local governments for demonstration projects to improve employment outcomes for immigrants and persons with limited proficiency in English.

  • Research suggests that some immigrant TANF recipients experience significant barriers to employment, including limited proficiency in English and very low skill levels.

  • To develop more effective models for serving these families, demonstration grants should focus on:

    • improving employment and earnings outcomes for LEP persons.

    • increasing English proficiency and literacy of LEP persons.

    • improving linguistic access and cultural competency in all facets of the TANF program.

    • developing programs that integrate English language acquisition with job skills training.