You See What I’m Saying? Current and Former TANF Recipients Talk About Being on Welfare

Current and Former TANF Recipients Talk About Being on Welfare
Download full report (PDF, 706 KB)

By September 30, 2002 the United States Congress must “reauthorize” the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Passed in 1996, this legislation “changed welfare as we know it.” Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This new welfare program required parents to participate in defined work activities in order to receive aid and limited an adult’s lifetime TANF eligibility to five years. All states were awarded a TANF block grant, required to earmark a specified percentage of their own revenue as Maintenance of Effort (MOE) funds, and granted significant flexibility to design and implement welfare-to-work programs and services.

Much state and national research on welfare reform and its impacts has been conducted. We know that the vast majority of TANF households are headed by women. Many leaving the TANF rolls since 1996 found entry-level employment, although most earn less-than-poverty wages. Others have been sanctioned or terminated from the rolls for supposed or flagrant noncompliance and encounter significant hardship.

Researchers have necessarily reduced the countless experiences of thousands of current and former TANF recipients into vital numbers, striking percentages, telling bar graphs, and instructive pie charts. TANF reauthorization advocates and foes have used this information to promote their positions in congressional hearings or visits, welfare reform conferences and symposiums, as well as Department of Health and Human Services sponsored “Listening Sessions” held across the country. As Congress prepares to pick up the reauthorization debate, these decision-makers on welfare policy may be far removed from those in their districts and states most directly impacted by the TANF system. People contending with poverty must not be lost through carefully crafted messaging, winnable strategizing, and political posturing.

In this publication, the Chicago Jobs Council (CJC) gives voice to the people behind the numbers. The following pages hold the experiences and ideas of 31 women, current and former TANF recipients and their providers of employment services, who participated in five focus groups CJC conducted in the Fall of 2001. Their thoughts reflect their perspectives as short or long-term welfare recipients, and as women of various ages, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and languages. Their remarks, largely unedited, are collected here so that you will give them serious consideration in your own welfare advocacy or policy-making.

See what they are saying. This is welfare as they know it.

About the Photographers

John Brooks, a photographer who grew up in Cabrini Green, has been taking pictures since age 12. His work is published in Journal of Ordinary ThoughtOur America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago, major newspapers and leading cultural institutions. To view more of his work, please visit

Kate Ingold is executive director of Neighborhood Writing Alliance, a Chicago nonprofit that sponsors free writing workshops and publishes the work in Journal of Ordinary Thought (, a quarterly magazine dedicated to the unheard voices and stories of Chicago.

Scott Henriquez, a photographer who has captured images for Chicago Women in Trades (, a membership-based organization dedicated to increasing women and girls’ access to employment opportunities in nontraditional blue-collar careers.