Women’s Lived Experiences with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): How TANF Can Better Support Women’s Wellbeing and Reduce Intimate Partner Violence

Women experiencing poverty are more likely to face intimate partner violence (IPV), poor health, and stigma. IPV survivors are overrepresented among those who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a conditional cash program serving families experiencing poverty. More generous TANF policies may be protective against IPV, but a greater insight into TANF’s effect could be gleaned through a contemporaneous study that examines intersecting determinants of wellbeing and engages community interpretation of findings. Using an adapted Family Stress Model framework and analyzing data through an intersectional and community-based lens, we explore the impact of TANF on women’s wellbeing through in-depth, semi-structured interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic with 13 women who had TANF experience in three U.S. states. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis in MAXQDA and researchers facilitated three member-checking events to enhance validity of result interpretation. Four themes emerged: (1) Low cash and conditional benefits provided limited short-term “relief” but contributed to poverty and hard choices; (2) TANF benefit levels and conditions increased women’s dependence on others, straining relationships; (3) Women undertook extraordinary measures to access TANF, largely to fulfill their roles as mothers; and (4) TANF stigma creates psychological stress, differentially experienced by African Americans. Increasing TANF cash benefits and other cash transfers for those experiencing poverty, adopting solely state funded TANF programs, increasing funding for TANF administration, addressing TANF stigma and racialized narratives, and allowing optional child support participation or a larger “pass-through” of child support are important steps toward making TANF more protective against IPV.