With both Social Security and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) having anniversaries this month — August 14, 1935 and August 22, 1996, respectively — it’s a good time to compare and contrast what they do for children and youth. If you listen to Social Security’s critics, it’s easy to come away thinking that Social Security is a system of generational theft in which Boomer parents and grandparents steal from their children and grandchildren. At the same time, many of these same critics point to the TANF block grant as a model social program for families.

Yet, Social Security does much more to help kids today than TANF. Although Social Security is typically thought of as a retirement program, minor children are eligible for direct benefits if one of their parents is an insured worker who has retired, become disabled, or died. In 2018, nearly 3 million children under age 18 received $20.9 billion in Social Security benefits. The number of children receiving Social Security has been relatively stable in recent decades. For example, in 2000, roughly 3 million children received benefits.

Moreover, these figures only partially account for how much Social Security does to improve children’s living standards. This is because the figures do not include Social Security received by adults — typically retired or disabled parents and grandparents — who live with children. Peter Arno and Jeannette Wicks-Lim of the Political Economy Research Institute have estimated that another 3.2 million children who do not receive Social Security themselves directly benefit from the program because they live in families where at least one other adult receives benefits.

By contrast, about 1.7 million children received financial assistance from TANF in 2018. These children's families received about $7 billion in TANF benefits, one-third the amount provided by Social Security directly to children. This $7 billion includes TANF benefits provided to parents and other adults in the household. If Social Security benefits received by children’s parents and other adults in their household were taken into account, the gap between TANF and Social Security would be even larger.

The number of children receiving TANF has fallen sharply over time; in 2000, nearly 4.5 million children received TANF benefits compared to 1.7 million in 2018. Notably, this decline isn’t because fewer families have income and assets low enough to be eligible for TANF. In fact, the number of low-income families eligible for TANF has grown steadily since 2000 — from 4.4 million in 2000 to 6.1 million in 2015. At the same time, the number of families actually receiving TANF has declined, from 2.3 million to 1.6 million. We don't have eligibility estimates for more recent years, but only 1.1 million families were receiving TANF as of March 2019, suggesting that the gap between eligibility and receipt has not narrowed over the last few years.

Even though TANF is means-tested and Social Security is not, TANF does much less to reduce child poverty and family inequality than Social Security. In 2017, roughly 1.5 million children had family incomes above the poverty line because of Social Security, compared to only about 300,000 because of TANF. (Because these figures come from a household survey that undercounts benefits, they likely understate the effects of both programs on family income. Still, there is little question that Social Security does much more to bolster family incomes than TANF).

TANF and Social Security provide assistance to children who are more disadvantaged than children overall, but there are also notable differences. Compared to both children generally and children receiving TANF, children receiving Social Security are older and have older parents or caretakers. Children receiving Social Security are about as likely to be white as children generally, but more likely to be white than children receiving TANF. Children whose parents have only a high school degree or less are more likely to receive Social Security than children whose parents have a BA.

In short, if you really care about today’s children, you should be very upset about how little TANF is doing to help them, largely because of decisions made by Boomer policymakers in the 1990s. It’s worth remembering here that the TANF block grant replaced a more focused program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), that was part of the Social Security Act of 1935, and administered for most of its history by the Social Security Administration. AFDC was far from perfect, mostly because it departed from many of the principles that have guided Social Security, including adequacy and equity. However, AFDC was more effective than TANF, which has even less in common with those foundational principles. In subsequent posts, I’ll explain why TANF is failing children so badly, and how a more comprehensive social security system would help them.