Understanding the AFDC/TANF Child-Only Caseload: Policies, Composition, and Characteristics in Three States. Growth in Child-Only Caseloads


As Exhibit 1.2 shows, the number of child-only families receiving AFDC/TANF assistance has increased steadily throughout most of the 1990s, declining only in the last two years. The largest increase in child-only cases occurred between 1989 and 1993, when the child-only caseload increased from 399,700 in 1989 to 786,700 in 1993, an increase of 97 percent. While the total AFDC/TANF caseload also increased during this period, from 3.8 million to 5.0 million, the percentage increase was 32 percent, one-third of the child-only percentage increase. The child-only caseload continued to grow through 1996.

Even though the child-only caseload began to decline starting in 1997, the percentage decline is smaller than the decline in the total TANF caseload. It is estimated that the child-only caseload declined by 18 to 19.5 percent between 1997 and 1998, compared to a percent reduction of 24 percent in the total TANF caseload. A range is presented because for 1998, five states/regions did not report data or reported data considered to be unreliable. Imputing for these missing states/regions adds between 15,000 to 29,000 to the national child-only caseload, depending on the estimation method used, resulting in a total caseload of between 739,000 and 752,000. (10)

Exhibit 1.2
AFDC/TANF Families and Child-Only Families

(numbers in thousands)
Year Total Families Annual Change in TANF Families (%) Families With No Adult Recipients Annual Change in Families With No Adults (%)
1985 3,692 -- 437 --
1986 3,748 1.5 437 0.0
1987 3,784 1.0 361 -17.4
1988 3,748 -1.0 360 -0.3
1989 3,771 0.6 400 11.1
1990 3,974 5.4 459 14.8
1991 4,374 10.1 558 21.6
1992 4,768 9.0 707 26.7
1993 4,981 4.5 787 11.3
1994 5,046 1.3 869 10.4
1995 4,873 -3.4 923 6.2
1996 4,553 -6.6 978 6.0
1997 4,058 -10.9 918 -6.1
1998 3,176 -23.9 739 - 753a/ -19.5 to -18.0a/
a/  1998 child-only are unavailable or not reliable for five states/regions. Data were imputed for the five states using two assumptions: the upper bound assumes the 1998 caseloads are equal to the 1997 caseloads; the lower bound assumes the 1998 caseloads declined by the same percentage as total TANF caseload reductions in the states.

Source:  Department of Health and Human Services, ACF, Characteristics and Financial Circumstances of AFDC Recipients, various years.

Within the child-only caseload, both parental and non-parental caregiver cases have increased, although the parental cases increased at a greater rate than non-parental cases from the late 1980s to the 1990s (see Exhibit 1.3). This is especially true of sanctioned cases, which increased from 14,000 to 112,000 cases between 1988 and 1996.

Exhibit 1.3
Composition of Child-Only Cases, 1988 to 1997

(numbers in thousands)
Year Non-parental SSI Alien Sanction Other Parental Total Parental Cases Total Child-Only Casesa/
1988 206 62 41 14 45 162 368
1991 263 96 87 36 60 279 542
1994 321 176 145 62 118 501 822
1995 364 179 140 86 99 505 869
1996 388 195 160 112 124 590 978
1997 341 214 145 75 134 568 909
a/  The total number of child-only cases here differs slightly from the total number of no-adult cases in Exhibit 1.2 due to rounding and differences in the identification of subgroups.

Source:  AFDC QC Data. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.

This is illustrated also in the first two panels of Exhibit 1.4, which shows how the composition changed in child-only cases from 1988 to 1994, the period of explosive growth in the child-only caseload. The proportion of child-only cases in sanction status more than doubled, from 4 percent to 10 percent, the proportion of alien cases increased by 5 percentage points, and the proportion of SSI cases increased by 4 percentage points.(11) As a result, the parental cases increased from 44 percent to 58 percent. The proportion of cases that are non-parental child-only cases declined, although this is not due to a decline in the absolute number of non-parental cases but to the larger increase in parental cases. (As Exhibit 1.3 shows, the non-parental cases increased from 206,000 in 1988 to 321,000 in 1994.)

Exhibit 1.4
Proportion of AFDC Child-Only Cases in 1988, 1994, and 1997

Exhibit 1.4: Proportion of AFDC Child-Only Cases in 1988, 1994, and 1997. See text for explanation and data.

Source:  AFDC QC Data. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.

From 1994 to 1997, the most recent year for which data are available, the composition of child-only cases did not change substantially. The non-parental cases comprised the largest portion of child-only cases, while SSI cases make up close to one-quarter of the caseload.

Several explanations may account for the increases in child-only cases from the late 1980s to the 1990s:

  • An increase in sanctions for non-compliance with program requirements. The Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988 required non-exempt AFDC recipients to participate in job search, work experience, or education and training activities or be sanctioned. States sanctioned cases by removing the parent from the assistance unit, converting regular AFDC cases to child-only cases. In addition, some states were granted waivers that made additional AFDC recipients mandatory for the work requirements outlined by FSA, and thus, increased the number who could be sanctioned. Also, some states were granted waivers to impose harsher sanctions, such as extending the sanction period.(12)
  • An increase in the number of individuals eligible for SSI. Congress enacted a series of legislation reforms in the mid-eighties and early-nineties that significantly expanded the scope of the SSI program. The biggest change was the enactment of the 1984 Disability Reform Act that significantly expanded eligibility, particularly for those with mental impairments. Outreach efforts in the early nineties coupled with major expansions in the child SSI program also had a major impact on the number of adults who applied for SSI benefits over this period. (13)
  • An increase in the number of non-qualified aliens. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) allowed formerly illegal immigrants to attain legal status, although barred them from receiving AFDC for the first five years after their legalization. It is possible that the new legal status of the parents increased the likelihood that they would seek benefits for their citizen children. In addition, IRCA instituted employer sanctions for knowingly hiring illegal aliens, perhaps putting more non-qualified aliens in need of cash assistance for their families. Finally, illegal aliens living in the U.S. began growing by about 200,000 to 300,000 each year starting in 1989, after IRCA initially reduced the number of non-qualified aliens.(14)
  • An increase in non-parental caregivers. One study examined Current Population Survey data and found an increase of kinship care between 1983 and 1993. Specifically, the number of children in the U.S. increased by 6.6 percent while the number of children living with relatives other than parents increased by 8.4 percent.(15) This growth in relative caregivers may have increased the number of TANF children living with relatives and receiving assistance on child-only cases. Additionally, there may have been an increased awareness on the part of relatives that cash assistance was available.

A decline in child-only cases began in 1997, with a greater reduction occurring in 1998. (Although, as explained above, data are incomplete; more complete data will be available starting in fiscal year 2000, when new federal data requirements take effect.) If this trend continues, there are several possibilities that may explain the decline. First, some states have changed their sanction policies in recent years, some imposing full-family sanctions, which closes the TANF case for noncompliance, and others reducing the overall grant level, but including the parent in the assistance group. These policy changes will reduce the number of sanctioned child-only cases in the state (to zero in some states). In addition, states are implementing programs for relative caregivers that could be considered alternatives to TANF, perhaps persuading some non-parental caregivers to migrate from TANF to these other programs. However, this might be offset partially by an increase of qualified aliens entering the country who can only get assistance for their children.