Understanding the AFDC/TANF Child-Only Caseload: Policies, Composition, and Characteristics in Three States. National and State Level Findings


After significant growth in the early 1990s, the child-only caseload has leveled off nationally; however, due to continued reductions in the regular TANF caseload, the proportion of child-only cases continues to grow.  While all states have experienced growth in the numbers and relative proportion of their child-only caseloads since the early 1990s, recent changes vary significantly among states.

Nationally, the composition of child-only cases has changed since 1988; parent-headed cases due to sanction, SSI receipt, and alien status have grown more rapidly than non-parental caregiver cases.

State TANF policies affect the number and composition of child-only cases in each state.  The main policies are as follows:

  • Time limits.  Application of time limits to the entire family is less likely to lead directly to child-only cases than when applied only to the case head; however, over time whole family time limits may create child-only cases under the auspices of either protective payees or non-parental caregivers.
  • Sanctions.  Sanctions that remove the adult from the assistance unit create child-only cases; sanctions that reduce the grant, but keep the adult in the assistance unit do not.  Whole family sanctions may create child-only cases if protective payees are utilized to provide resources for the child(ren).
  • Alien status.  State policies on qualified aliens who entered the country before or after August 1996 determine whether adults in those families may be included in the TANF case; children born in the United States to ineligible aliens will be child-only cases.
  • Referral to SSI.  Policies to actively refer TANF case heads with disabilities to SSI may increase the number of child-only cases.  On the other hand, the few states that include SSI benefits in the TANF grant determination, should see a reduction in the number of child-only cases.
  • Non-parental caregivers.  States have the flexibility to develop their own definition of family; some states allow non-relatives who have guardianship or legal custody to apply for TANF benefits and others limit benefits to relative caregivers or parents.  A state's definition of "family" and the requirements imposed on non-parental caregiver cases should affect the number of child-only cases.
  • Alternate state programs.  Creation of alternate relative caregiver programs may result in a shift of cases from TANF into the alternative programs; depending on state financing choices these cases may or may not be counted as TANF child-only cases.