Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Work-Related Rules and How to Make the Most of TANF Benefits

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Work-Related Rules and How to Make the Most of TANF Benefits
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Last updated: September 2010

What is TANF?

The TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program focuses on getting TANF recipients into jobs. When you apply for TANF benefits, the Department of Human Services (DHS) will meet with you to discuss your job goals and skills, work history, and education. DHS will also ask about any problems that make it hard for you to get and keep a job. 

After this assessment, DHS will assign you to certain self-support/work-related activities. You must participate in the assigned activities a certain number of hours per week. To receive TANF, you must participate in the assessment and your assigned work-related activities, unless you have good cause (a good reason to not participate, for example a medical condition that prevents you from working).  

Who can get benefits through TANF?

In general, a person can get benefits through TANF if he or she is a U.S. citizen living in Illinois who:

  • Is a pregnant woman (her husband can also get benefits, if he lives with her); or
  • Has a child under age 19 and lives with the child. If the child is 18, the child must be a full-time high school student in order to qualify for TANF.

Even if a person is homeless, he or she may qualify for TANF.  Some non-citizens are also eligible for TANF.

Is there a lifetime limit on TANF benefits?

Yes. There is a 60 month TANF lifetime limit. However, not all work-related activities count towards the lifetime limit. For example, months in which you work 30 hours or more per week do not count toward the 60 month lifetime limit. Also, some education and training activities do not count towards the TANF lifetime limit. 

What opportunities does TANF offer?

TANF's support services and training opportunities can help you get the work experience and training you may need to earn more and become self-supporting. If you get a job while you are on TANF, only one dollar of every three dollars you earn counts against your TANF grant. While on TANF you keep Medicaid benefits for at least 12 months, and you get other support services you may need to work (like help with transportation expenses, work clothing, and even dental work). 

TANF also offers the opportunity to get more training and education. If you have the ability and interest to go to college to get work in a particular field, TANF can help you. If DHS approves a full time college (or college level vocational program) for you and you keep at least a 2.5 grade point average, the months you are in school do not count toward the 60 month lifetime TANF limit.

Who is exempt from the work requirement?

There is no TANF work-related requirement for adults who are:

  • Age 60 or older
  • Caring for their child under one year of age
  • Seeking TANF for children only (but only if they are not a parent of the children receiving TANF)

The 60 month limit on TANF benefits applies to these adults even if they are exempt. However, even if you are exempt, you can still volunteer for TANF work and training programs and get the support services you need to help you become self-supporting. 

What are the work requirements for single parent families?

The work requirement is 30 hours per week for single parent families.

What is the work requirement for families with two parents?

The work requirement is 35 hours per week for families with two parents. One of the parents must either work or participate in Work Experience 30 hours per week.

However, a parent under age 20 without a high school diploma, or a GED certificate, must go to Basic Education for 30 hours per week. 

What Happens When You Apply for TANF Benefits

Step One:  The Family Assessment

When you apply for TANF, a DHS worker will interview you about your education and job history. The interview will cover your job goals and the skills and training you already have. The interview will also cover skills or training you need to get and keep work, and problems that prevent you from working. This interview is called the family assessment. DHS must complete the family assessment before assigning you to any work related activity (including Job Search).

Tell DHS What You Want to Do

If you know what type of work you want to do, be sure to tell the DHS worker during the family assessment interview. For example:

  • You may want to start a small business;
  • You may want to get training for a good paying job that offers benefits. For example, you can get training to become a carpenter, a welder, an electrician, a chef, a car mechanic, a plumber, a cable installer, a respiratory therapist or a nurse;
  • Or, you may want to go to college to get a job in the growing range of health services or information technology fields. 

At the family assessment interview, ask how TANF can help you achieve your work goals.

Tell DHS about Problems Blocking Your Work or Training Efforts     

The DHS worker who interviews you will ask you if you have problems that make it difficult for you to work. This is a very important part of the interview. Problems that DHS wants to know about can range from:

  • Lack of child care, transportation or work clothes;
  • Difficulty reading or communicating in English. If you aren’t sure about your reading ability, ask for a reading test;
  • Disabilities, illness or mental health problems;
  • Homelessness, domestic violence or your need to care for someone else in your home. 

Be sure to describe all problems that make it hard for you to work. Whatever hurdle you face in getting a job, this is a chance to get the help you need. DHS can help you pay for some things like transportation or school fees. DHS can also arrange services for you through resources that are available in your community, like substance abuse treatment, a domestic violence program and medical treatment. 

When the assessment interview is over ask the DHS worker to give you a copy of the Family Assessment. Read it over and make sure it includes the job goals and support service needs you told the DHS worker about. 

Step Two:  The Responsibility and Services Plan (RSP) 

Using the results of the family assessment, DHS will work with you to develop a plan to help you become self-supporting. This plan is called a Responsibility and Services Plan, or RSP. Adults applying for or receiving TANF must sign a RSP. The RSP will state: 

  • Your employment goal and the steps you will take to reach the goal 
  • The self-support activities you must do to get TANF
  • The services you need to help you do the assigned self-support activities, and how you will get these services
  • The services that DHS will provide such as child care, transportation and other services   

DHS may assign you to one or more self-support activities so that you meet the minimum hours necessary to qualify for TANF benefits. Your preferences for self-support activities should be considered in the RSP, but DHS also considers other factors such as local labor conditions and your skills and abilities.

You should not sign an RSP with a work related assignment unless you have had the family assessment. The RSP has several parts such as: 

  • The TANF Agreement form
  • The Employment, Education and Training form
  • The Family Issues form
  • The Treatment form

Be sure to read through each form carefully before you sign it to make sure you understand what you must do and what DHS must do to help you.

Reviewing and Changing the RSP

You may request a review of your RSP at any time. For example, if you have been in Job Search and have not been able to find a job you can ask DHS to review your RSP. Or, if you want a job that requires specific education or training (like becoming a physical therapist) ask your DHS worker to review your RSP, change your goal, and approve the training/education activity that will let you pursue your job goal. 

DHS will review your RSP at least every six months and will look at your progress toward your employment goal. If you are not making progress, DHS may assign you to a different activity. Be sure to prepare for the review beforehand.  Think about your job goals and training or education you might want to pursue, and the supportive services you need. If you do this, you can make the most of your TANF benefits and get a good job with good benefits for yourself and your family. 

Appealing the RSP 

Your DHS worker should work with you to develop your RSP. If you disagree with your RSP assignment(s), you may file an appeal. DHS has the final say in your appeal. 

You can also appeal if you are denied supportive services. For example, if you want to become a physical therapist and you feel you meet the requirements for an education/training program but DHS will not approve the program for you, you can file an appeal to show that physical therapy is an appropriate job goal and education activity program for you. Or, if you need dental work to improve your chances of becoming employed but DHS will not approve it, you may file an appeal to show why the dental work is important to your ability to get a job or advance in a job. 

Click on the title below to learn more about appealing a DHS decision:

Appealing a Decision by the Illinois Department of Human Services

Step Three:  Exceptions to the Work Requirement

Domestic or Sexual Violence

If you are a victim of domestic or sexual violence and need to focus your efforts on getting out of an abusive situation, ask your DHS worker to include participation in a domestic violence program as your assigned RSP activity. Domestic or sexual violence includes stalking, and can occur through electronic communications, like cell phones and e-mails. DHS will waive any TANF program requirements that make it hard for victims to escape abuse.

Medical Barrier to Work

If you have health problems that prevent you from working, tell your DHS worker. DHS will ask for a report from your doctor. DHS may also ask for other medical records which confirm your medical problems. DHS will determine if your medical problems completely prevent you from working, and whether the problems are temporary or permanent. If medical help is available for your health problems, you must accept treatment, unless you have good cause. (For example, good cause exists if the treatment is experimental or unusual and could be very risky.) 

While DHS is considering whether your medical condition prevents you from working, you should not be required to do any work activities. If DHS decides you are able to work, and you disagree, you may appeal. For information on how to appeal, click here.   

While your appeal is pending, DHS should not assign you to any work activities. If you have serious health problems that prevent you from working, DHS may require that you apply for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI) at the Social Security office. For more information on SSI and the eligibility requirements, click here. If you live in Cook County, DHS may also refer you to the SSI Advocacy Project to help you pursue your SSI application.

Family Care Barrier/Child in the Home and Community Based Waiver

If you care full time for a minor child or spouse who has severe physical or mental health problems, ask DHS to assign this in-home care as your work activity. DHS will ask you for evidence of the medical problems and the extent of care needed. DHS will evaluate whether you are completely unable to do some work related activities. 

If DHS decides you are not needed in the home full time to care for your child or spouse you may appeal. For information on how to appeal, click here. If DHS finds that you need to care for a spouse or child full time, DHS will not count months you receive TANF toward your 60 month lifetime limit. 

If your child participates in the Home and Community Based Care Program, you will not need to submit other verification of the child’s medical needs.

If you care full time for an adult (like a parent, grandparent or adult child) who has physical or mental health problems, DHS will refer you to the Office of Rehabilitative Services or the Department on Aging. These agencies can determine the extent of the problem and if home based care services are available. 


If you are homeless, ask your DHS worker to include finding a home in your RSP

Types of RSP Activity Assignments

DHS has three categories of self-support activities that it may include in your RSP depending on your Family Assessment. The categories include work activities, education and training activities, and “other” activities. The range of TANF employment or work activities available varies from county to county depending upon available resources. The activities may be provided directly by DHS or through contract with other private or public agencies.

Work Activities

Work activities can consist of Job Search, Community Service, Work Experience and Work First.

Job Search for Job Ready Recipients

DHS generally considers you “job ready” if:

  • You have a high school diploma or a GED certificate;
  • You have worked at least 3 straight months during the past year; and
  • You do not need treatment for substance abuse.

However, you may not be considered job ready if you have other problems that prevent you from getting a job without further training, or if the local job market is not good for someone with your skills and education. 

If you are job ready, DHS will assign you to Job Search as your work activity. Job Search participants must make a certain number of job contacts per month and participate in other job seeking activities, like counseling or daily Job Club meetings. Job Search services may be provided by DHS or private agencies that have contracts with DHS. Job Search may be combined with other activities, like an education or training activity if appropriate. DHS may not assign you to Job Search as the only activity for more than 6 months.

Community Service

DHS may consider community service an appropriate work activity for you if:

  • You are already involved in community service in a school, church, government agency, or other nonprofit setting; and
  • You have little or no work experience. 

Community Service participants choose and arrange their own work placement with DHS’ help. Community Service is intended to give job experience, skills, and references to help you get a job. Job Search activities are also required as part of this assignment.

Community Service participants may be assigned to Work Experience or Work First when they are more job-ready or an appropriate slot is available.

Work Experience

If you are not working and need work experience, DHS may place you in a job. Work Experience places TANF recipients in jobs working for public or private companies or organizations that have agreed to accept TANF referrals.

DHS assigns Work Experience jobs based on the work assignments available and your work history, prior training, experience, skills, and vocational preference. If you are assigned to Work Experience, you can continue in it for as long as needed if it is helping you reach your employment goal. However, DHS must review your progress every 6 months. 

Work First

Work First participants are also assigned to jobs, but they receive their TANF benefits based only on the hours they work. DHS describes this as a "pay after performance" activity. If there are no work assignments available, DHS may assign you to Community Service and/or a Vocational Training activity, but TANF is only paid based on your hours of participation. In addition to the work assignment, DHS may assign extra activities, like education or training activities, in order to meet the required minimum number of TANF monthly work-related hours.

DHS considers Work First assignment for TANF recipients who:

  • Have not succeeded in other work or training programs, and/or
  • Need additional job skills

Participants may be assigned to Work First until they find a regular job, or until another activity is found which will better equip them to reach their employment goals. There is no time limit.

Education and Training Activities

Education and Training self-support activities consist of basic education, post-secondary education, vocational training, self-employment training and job skills training. 

Basic Education

Unless your job goal does not require basic education skills, DHS may assign you to Basic Education if: 

  • You do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate;
  • You have limited English skills; or
  • You are not able to read at a 9th grade level. 

If you are under age 21 DHS will assign you to Basic Education.

Basic Education may include:

  • Elementary, high school or GED classes
  • English as a Second Language classes, or
  • Classes which will help you read at a 9th grade level

Basic Education participants must enroll in an accredited education program. They must attend school full time as defined by the educational program (unless full time is not available).  

If you attend a Basic Education program full time, and you make satisfactory progress, you will not need to participate in any other work activity for up to 24 months. After 24 months, you must also work at least 20 hours per week to continue in a Basic Education program with support services.   

Post-Secondary Education

If you have the ability and interest to go to college, you should consider post-secondary education (college education). One benefit of post-secondary education is that you can get an education that will greatly improve how much money you earn in the future. Also, attending an approved full time college program stops the TANF counter. For example, the months spend in your first semester of college don’t count toward the 60 month TANF lifetime limit. Also, after the first semester if you maintain at least a 2.5 grade average, the months you are in school do not count toward the lifetime limit either. To take advantage of this opportunity, you have to plan ahead to apply for admission to the program and get the financial aid you’ll need to cover tuition and other expenses. 

There are some restrictions. For example:

  • You must choose a college program that will qualify you for a recognized occupation in demand in the area where you will work. See the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s Career Information Services website for helpful information about hundreds of occupations; 
  • For post-secondary education, DHS considers college programs that are targeted at a specific occupation, like nursing, or Vocational Training;
  • For tuition, you must apply for available educational benefits such as a Pell grant, scholarship money from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, as well as any scholarships and grants identified by the school (student loans are not required, but you may need a loan too);
  • You must attend school full time as defined by the educational program, unless full time is not available.  

If you attend a post secondary program full time, you don’t need to engage in any other TANF work-related activity if you have a “C” average or better. If you attend school less than full time, or your grades fall below a "C," you must work at least 20 hours per week in addition to education activities. 

Vocational Training

DHS describes Vocational Training as any program that prepares you for a specific type of work. Vocational Training programs may be offered by a college or a private technical school. 

If the Vocational Training Program is an Associate or Bachelor's Degree program (like nursing or physical therapist programs), the TANF clock is stopped. This means that if you are enrolled full time and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, the TANF clock stops for months you are in school.  

DHS may approve a vocational training for you if:

  • A high school diploma/GED is required for the occupation you’ve chosen;
  • There is a demand for the occupation;
  • You do not have a college degree or other training that qualifies you for work;
  • You need additional training to become self-supporting; and
  • You have the ability and interest to succeed in the program you want; 
  • The program is properly accredited under Illinois law. (The school or college offering the program can tell you if the program you are interested in is properly accredited.)  

You must apply for any educational assistance available, like a Pell Grant, aid from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, as well as any scholarships or grants available from the education/training provider.

You must attend full time as defined by the vocational training program, or as many hours as are possible in your family circumstances and as required in your RSP.   

There is no work requirement for the first 24 months of Vocational Training. If you are in a degree program and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, there is no work requirement after the 24th month. If you are not in a degree program, or your grade point average is less than 2.5, you must work at least 20 hours per week in addition to your education/training activities. 

Self-Employment Training

If you want to start up a small business that will cost less than $5000 to get up and running, DHS may approve your participation in Self-Employment Training.  To get approval for this activity, you need:

  • A high school diploma/GED or work experience that shows you could succeed without one; 
  • A business plan that shows that you have or are seeking a loan to start up;
  • A marketing plan that describes your product or service and how you will market it; and
  • Your financial plan anticipating your costs, cash flow and loan repayment plan two years out. You must also participate in a self-employment training program. 

The DHS local office administrator must approve Self-Employment Training, and must review the progress of the business every 6 months.

Job Skills Training

You may be assigned to Jobs Skills Training if:

  • You are already working or participating in another activity 20 hours a week
  • You need more participation hours, and
  • You need to improve your skills to qualify for the type of work you want

Job Skills Training participants work on improving their reading, writing, math and business skills as well as their communication, or new industry technology skills. Private contractors provide the training. Participants in Job Skills Training must have a high school diploma/GED certificate if one is required for their chosen field. 

Other Self Support Activities

Other self-support activities include: alcohol and substance abuse treatment, the domestic violence program, the mental health program, foster parenting and supportive services. 

Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment

DHS staff screen for potential drug or alcohol problems when they meet with a client. If they believe a problem exists, they refer the client to a substance abuse treatment provider. If the treatment provider determines that treatment is appropriate, the client’s RSP will include participation in the treatment as the assigned activity (unless the client is already working 30 hours per week or more).

Domestic Violence Program

DHS staff is instructed to screen clients for possible domestic violence issues that the clients may be reluctant to discuss. The purpose of the screening is to help to victims of domestic violence get services they need and to relieve them of TANF work-related rules if they are working with a domestic violence services provider.  

Mental Health Treatment

DHS staff also screen for mental illness. If they believe an illness exists, they refer the client to mental health treatment services. If the mental health services provider determines that treatment is necessary, the RSP will include mental health treatment as the required activity (unless the client is already working 30 or more hours per week). If you have a mental illness and want (or are in) treatment, DHS should approve treatment as your RSP activity. Any additional work requirements must be consistent with the mental health treatment plan.

Foster Parenting

If you are a licensed foster parent and have one or more children in your care, your foster parenting duties may serve as your RSP activity. 

Supportive Services

DHS will help pay for or arrange "supportive" services which help you do the work and training activities specified in your RSP. DHS cannot require you to participate in a specific work and training activity if the supportive services you need are not available from DHS or other sources that are available to you. 
The types of supportive services DHS will provide include the ones listed below. 

Child Care: DHS issues child care payments for short term need (less than 30 days) including child care you may need to attend DHS or other appointments when your children are not in school. However, you must ask for this type of assistance.

If you need child care for more than 30 days, DHS will refer you to the Child Care Resource and Referral agency in your area, which is responsible for linking you to subsidized child care. There is a co-payment for child care, based on your income, the number of hours of care needed, and the number of children. For example, if you earn $1500/month for a family of 2, and you need full time child care for one child, your co-payment would be $20/week.

Transportation: DHS will help you with transportation to enable you to attend approved activities and appointments and to begin or keep a job.

DHS will also help pay for transportation to allow you to attend approved activities including travel expenses to find appropriate child care. If you are in an education activity, DHS will pay for transportation if your education financial aid benefits are not sufficient to cover your transportation expenses. 

For public transportation: 

  • DHS pays the actual public transportation rate per day or the cost of a monthly pass, whichever is less;
  • This applies to the City of Chicago and communities statewide where public transportation is available.

For private transportation:

DHS pays monthly rates if you must use a privately owned vehicle or pay someone for transportation. For example:

  • DHS will pay $30 for round-trip transportation that is less than 10 miles per day; 
  • DHS will pay $45 for round-trip transportation between 10 to 20 miles per day;
  • DHS will pay $60 for round-trip transportation over 20 miles per day.

If you own your own car and need it to get to work or training activities, DHS may approve transportation related expenses for you, including:

  • Your car registration fee
  • Liability insurance at the least costly rate (But not over $675 in any 12 months, or the cost of 9 months of insurance coverage, whichever is less)
  • Car repairs up to $900 for 12 months
  • Payment to enroll you in a van-pool program

Job Search, Work First, Work Experience, Community Service: In addition to any other supportive service needs (like transportation or child care) DHS pays a $20.00 per month personal allowance to help with your job search or work-related costs (like a haircut for work or a job interview, or costs to send out job applications). If you are in Work First, the supportive service payments should be made in advance to allow you to participate. 

Mandatory Fees: DHS will pay mandatory fees if you are enrolled in an approved education or training programs if the mandatory fees are not covered by financial aid benefits. Mandatory fees include: 

  • Application fees
  • Registration fees
  • Activity fees
  • Laboratory fees
  • Graduation and testing fees

DHS will not pay more than $300 over a 12 month period. No payments are allowed for tuition.

Books and Supplies: DHS pays for books, supplies and equipment required for educational or a training facility's published list of required items for the particular program in which a participant is enrolled. DHS will not pay more than $300 over a 12 month period. DHS will only pay for expenses not covered by financial aid benefits.

Required Physical Examinations and Medical Services: DHS pays for physical examinations and medical services (for example, a TB test) if you need them for work or education and training programs, and if the costs are not covered by the employer or the training program.

Eyeglasses and Dental Procedures: DHS will pay for eyeglasses and dental procedures needed to help you meet the objectives of your RSP and to help you become more employable (such as partial plates for participants with noticeably missing or malformed teeth).

Clothing: DHS will pay for special clothing, like uniforms, hard hats, or outsized clothing needed for the client to meet a dress code for an activity or employment.  DHS will pay a maximum of $600 in any 12-month period.

Required Tools: DHS will pay for required tools that are not provided by the employer. DHS will pay a maximum of $600 in any 12-month period.  

Child Care Licensing Related Expenses: DHS will pay for items or services needed to assist the participant in meeting the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) child care licensing requirements. These items include, but are not limited to, a fire extinguisher, a smoke alarm, a first aid kit and installation of a phone. DHS will pay a maximum of $900 in any 12-month period. 

Self-Employment Expenses: DHS will pay for expenses required to help the client start up a small business (like becoming a child care provider or setting up a house-cleaning service) approved as a self-employment activity that is likely to generate income. Supervisory approval is required.

Background Checks: DHS will pay for conviction background investigations when employers require a background check of their regular employees for the same type of job or work experience that the TANF participant has.

Other Expenses: DHS will pay a maximum of $900 in any 12-month period for other required items related to the specific job or activity. Supervisory approval is required.

Relocation Expenses: DHS will pay for relocation expenses the participant needs to help him/her move to accept employment elsewhere. Supervisory approval is required. Payment is not approved for relocation expenses unless the client has a verified job. Payment is limited to the cost of renting a moving van, or one-month's security deposit for a rental agreement. Payment for out-of-state moves is only considered if there are no suitable jobs available locally.

Child Care and Transportation for Counseling and Other Services: You may also request child care and transportation assistance if you need them in order to participate in the following additional services: 

  • Vocational rehabilitation
  • Emergency intervention services
  • Substance abuse program
  • Domestic violence program
  • Life skills training activities
  • Family planning/sex education
  • Parenting skills, and family counseling

For further Information on applying for TANF, look at this website: http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=33698

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