Documenting Stories of the Daily Struggles of Vulnerable Families

The Situation

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has been a leader in the fight for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) reform. Their leaders have presented at national congressional hearings related to the necessity of reforming the welfare system, with emphasis on the TANF Program – a program that provides for state-sponsored cash assistance programs for families with children. Currently, the TANF Program is marked by historical and systematic racism. Recipients cycle through the program only to return to the low-skilled and low-paying jobs that lead them to apply for TANF assistance in the first place. Despair is high and hope is low. And yet, policymakers often miss the reality of the daily struggle of families.

As is the case with most crises, our nation’s COVID-19 pandemic widened the equity gap across the U.S.[1] CBPP is encouraging our government to seize this moment to retool the TANF Program. CBPP is advocating for a bold anti-racist TANF reform agenda in order to strengthen the program and assist families in the transition out of poverty.

Global Learning Partners, (GLP) Inc. was invited to design and facilitate focus group discussions with TANF recipients to better understand their financial realities, experiences on TANF, and visions for the future.

The Journey

GLP collaborated with CBPP and their local partners to secure focus group participants and facilitate a series of virtual discovery sessions. Across the sessions, we heard from TANF recipients in Maine, Indiana, California, New York, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. Below are a few insights we gained as the project unfolded.

  1. Connection before the session. It was important that the participants felt comfortable going into the focus group. Each participant was called before the session to ensure they had access to Zoom, to give us a preview of their situation, to meet the GLP team, and to give them the opportunity to ask any questions about the process.
  2. Mutual respect. Participants were grateful to share their individual stories, and to connect with each other regarding common experiences. Something magical happened when the dialogue was centered on participants affirming each other’s experience – there were fewer feelings of isolation regarding day-to-day challenges.
  3. Rich dialogue. The project’s goal of understanding how TANF policies impact recipients and their families was achieved through very rich dialogue. Vulnerability, honesty, and humor were vital aspects of the dialogue which allowed for us to clearly understand how families have been impacted under TANF policies.
  4. Shared learning. Members of the CBPP team and their local partners were not present for the actual focus group – so GLP documented the sessions for them through detailed notes, as well as recordings. We created a report with themes and quotes built around the lines of inquiry.
  5. Gratitude. We wanted focus group participants to know that they were heard, seen, and valued. Each participant received a Visa gift card and an email explaining how the research was going to be used. They were also informed that it was possible that a CBPP staff member would contact them if a direct quote was used in any publication or material. More importantly, they knew they were a part of making positive change by sharing their stories.

The Impact

This project created space for timely, individual narratives to emerge. Through the research gathered in the focus group, CBPP will have more qualitative evidence to present to federal policymakers. In the era of changing national leadership, this is the opportune time to redesign and strengthen this cash assistance program to better help families transition out of poverty rather than remain in it.

[1] Pandemic to Prosperity: Chronicling the Path from Response to Recovery. (2020, October 26). Retrieved January 5, 2021, from