Child care is not a luxury for American families—it’s a necessity. Yet the costs associated with quality child care are rapidly outpacing other expenses faced by families, including the cost of higher education. In addition to other important federal programs that support the care and education of America’s young children from birth through age five – particularly those from low-income families – the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program plays a crucial role in offering relief to these families for their child care expenses. TANF helps states to break the cycle of poverty through quality early childhood programs that support children’s development, while allowing parents to enter or return to the workforce.

TANF was created in 1996 to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which provided welfare to low-income families with children beginning in 1935. Since 1996, federal regulations and guidance have allowed TANF funds to support or expand a broad range of child care and early education initiatives in states. While states have great flexibility in how they decide to spend their block grant funds, they must do so consistent with the purposes of the law.

Under current law, a state has the flexibility to utilize TANF funds to support low-income families through increased access to child care and early education opportunities. A state can transfer up to 30 percent of its TANF funds to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which provides child care assistance for disadvantaged families and funds child care quality initiatives. Through regulatory guidance, HHS has specified that states also can spend TANF funds for early education. This funding is intended to supplement, not supplant, initiatives underway in a state/territory to broaden educational supports including child care, pre-kindergarten, Head Start, and kindergarten.

States across the nation are working to ensure more children, especially those from low-income families, have access to high-quality early learning and care from birth through age five. Much of the progress at the state and local levels has been made possible through strong partnerships with the federal government aimed at expanding access and increasing quality. TANF plays a particularly important role as a funding source that states can use for child care and early education programs to serve low-income families. Recognizing the importance of child care and early education, all states and the District of Columbia use TANF funding on these programs.

As Congress considers reauthorization of TANF, there is a significant opportunity to recognize the unmistakable role quality early childhood experiences play in helping to break the cycle of poverty. FFYF believes this can be done by reinforcing the connection between federal dollars and quality programs including expanding connections to CCDBG for all TANF funded child care; identifying ways to sustain child care funding in order to support TANF families; protecting the states’ ability to use federal funds to strengthen their own early care and learning initiatives; and ensuring states are supplementing rather than supplanting their own spending with TANF dollars.