Publication Date



[Excerpt] The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it is willing to waive certain federal work participation standards under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to permit states to experiment with “alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.” The work participation standards are numerical performance standards that each state must meet or risk being penalized through a reduction in its block grant. These are standards that apply to the states, not directly to individuals, though they may influence how states design their welfare- to-work programs.

Such waivers will be the first “new” waivers to test welfare-to-work strategies in more than 15 years. The waiver initiative would permit states that undertake an alternative welfare-to-work strategy to assess their programs using measures different from those in the current standards. HHS announced this policy through the release of an Information Memorandum on July 12, 2012.1 State requests for waivers will have to be approved by HHS and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and meet specified criteria.

Under the 1996 law that created TANF, states had the authority to operate programs created under waivers of pre-1996 welfare law until their scheduled expiration. The last such waiver expired in 2007. Additionally, the House passed legislation three times between 2002 and 2005 to create new “superwaiver” authority that would, among other things, have had the effect of allowing waivers of the federal TANF work participation standards. A scaled-back version of this proposal was reported from the Senate Finance Committee, but not approved by the full Senate, twice during that period.

This report discusses

• the current TANF work participation standards;

• the HHS initiative to waive TANF work participation standards;

• pre-1996 welfare waivers, including how they were treated under TANF; and

• the “superwaiver” proposal.

This report is not a legal analysis of the Secretary’s authority to waive TANF work participation standards. Rather, it describes and provides context for this HHS initiative. standards. Rather, it describes and provides context for this HHS initiative.


Suggested Citation
Falk, G. (2013). Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Welfare waivers. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

An earlier version of this report can be found here: