Unpacking Data Use in State TANF Agencies

Insights from the TANF Data Innovation Needs Assessment

By Robert M. Goerge, Emily R. Wiegand, Leah Gjertson


This brief summarizes results from a 2019 needs assessment of the capacity of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs in 54 U.S. states and territories to analyze data used for the purposes of program improvement, monitoring, and evidence-building. It highlights areas of strength and success in how these agencies use data, as well as areas for growth. It also includes suggested strategies that may improve data use by TANF agencies.

The brief should be of interest to policymakers, researchers, and organizations seeking to expand the use of data in state TANF agencies. Additionally, it may be of interest to state TANF administrators who wish to understand the landscape of data use.


The assessment was completed to understand TANF agencies’ needs for training and technical assistance to expand data use and capacity. These findings directly informed the design of the TANF Data Innovation (TDI) project, launched by the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to strengthen agencies’ use of TANF, employment, and other administrative data. The brief shares findings more broadly to inform similar and future efforts.

Key Findings and Highlights

Positive characteristics of data use by state TANF agencies include the following:

  • Information is flowing to TANF decision-makers, especially through regular reports of aggregated data.
  • Agencies have access to a consistent set of data elements.
  • 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 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.


There were three components to the needs assessment. The first component 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 human service, research, and technology organizations. The third was a systematic review of online public reports and analyses that used TANF data.

Information collections related to this project have been reviewed and approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under ACF’s Generic Clearance for Formative Data Collections for ACF Program Support (OMB #0970-0522). Related materials are available at the TANF Data Innovation (TDI) Needs Assessment Survey page on RegInfo.gov.

Goerge, Robert M., Emily R. Wiegand, and Leah Gjertson. 2021. “Unpacking Data Use in State TANF Agencies.” New York: MDRC.