Expanding Data Use and Evidence in the TANF Program: Identifying Strengths and Areas for Growth Across the U.S.

How can we expand the use of data and evidence in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which gives states and territories federal grant funds to help families with low incomes achieve economic self-sufficiency? As a step toward answering this question, this study examined how state TANF agencies use data. Our resulting brief, “Unpacking Data Use in State TANF Agencies: Insights from the TANF Data Innovation Needs Assessment” summarizes the national landscape of how TANF agencies use data and identifies areas of success and opportunities for growth. 

What We Did 

In 2019, we completed a needs assessment made up of three parts. The first was an online survey of the 54 states and territories that operate TANF. 48 of 54 agencies responded. The second was a series of in-depth stakeholder interviews with experts from federal and local government agencies and research, human service, and technology organizations. The third was a systematic review of online public reports and analyses that used TANF data. 

What We Found 

Positive characteristics of the way state TANF agencies use data include:  

  • Information is flowing to TANF decision-makers, especially through regular aggregate reports. 
  • Agencies have access to a consistent set of data fields.
  • Agency staff members have knowledge of fundamental data analysis techniques and tools. 
  • TANF staff members rate their agency’s data use highly. 

Areas for growth in state TANF agency data use capacity include: 

  • Limited staff capacity (especially staff time) restricts what agencies can do. 
  • Users may not be able to understand or trust the data because of data quality or documentation challenges. 
  • Some states have modernized data systems, but other systems are increasingly becoming obsolete. 
  • Agencies report access to employment data for TANF recipients, but access for analytical purposes continues to be a challenge. 

What It Means 

We highlight strategies to extend capacity for TANF data analysis by state agencies in three areas. The first is improving human and technical capacity around data, including activities such as staff development and building external capacity. The second area includes improving data quality and expanding data documentation. The final area is expanding access to wage data. As a work-focused program, wage data is a necessary source of employment outcome information for the TANF program. Ultimately, we can enable decision makers to improve policies and programs for families through better data capacity and data use.

Recommended Citation
Goerge, R. M., Wiegand, E. R., & Gjertson, L. (2021). Unpacking data use in state TANF agencies: Insights from the TANF Data Innovation Needs Assessment. MDRC. Available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/report/unpacking-data-use-state-tanf-agencies
Click to read the brief