A Longitudinal Database Tracking State AFDC/TANF Policies

The Welfare Rules Database provides a comprehensive, sophisticated resource for anyone comparing cash assistance programs between states, researching changes in cash assistance rules within a single state, or simply looking for the most up-to-date information on the rules governing cash assistance in one state.

The Welfare Rules Database includes:

  • A detailed database of AFDC/TANF rules in effect for all 50 states and the District of Columbia by state for years 1996 through 2019.
  • Information on rules that are in effect at a point in time (not proposals or legislation). Caseworker manuals are used to identify program rules. State administrators review the entries for each state to assure accuracy.
  • A point-and-click interface for querying the database. While the search engine is easy to use, state cash assistance programs are complex. Please review the Users Guide and Data Dictionary to help you effectively frame the question you want to answer.
  • The standard rule that affects most of a the caseload for most of the year. The standard rule is available by state, year, and category of rule.
  • Variations to the standard rule. This information details differences across geographic areas within a state, groups of recipients within a state, or months of the year.


Since the early 1990s, researchers and policy makers have had an increasingly difficult time understanding how states operate their cash assistance programs for needy families. The complexity of welfare programs increased in the early 1990s, as more states received waivers to experiment with their welfare programs. The increase in state waivers began shifting the control of cash assistance from the federal government to the states.

This shift culminated in the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in August of 1996. This legislation replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF greatly increased the flexibility states have to design and implement their cash assistance programs. This change increased the degree of variation across state programs - as well as the difficulty of tracking program rules.

Welfare Rules Get More Complex

Under AFDC, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) established a program structure for cash assistance which did not vary across states. DHHS gave states a limited number of options to set their own income eligibility limits, benefits levels, and eligibility requirements for two-parent families. As a result, differences in AFDC programs across states could be researched easily using the AFDC State Plans that DHHS required states to submit and/or through documents prepared by the Administration for Children and Families.

The ability to track state cash assistance rules became much more complex in the mid-1990s when many states received waivers to experiment with new policies, such as family caps and time limits. These waivers also allowed states to modify the structure of their AFDC programs previously set by the federal government. These changes were described in the Waiver Terms and Conditions agreed upon by the state and federal government. Since the Terms and Conditions did not address certain implementation details and the implementation schedules often changed after the agreement was reached, the information available at DHHS was no longer comprehensive.

The replacement of AFDC with TANF made tracking states' policies even more difficult. The TANF State Plans submitted to DHHS generally lacked sufficient information to completely understand the details of eligibility, benefit computation, and client requirements. This detailed information could only be obtained from state regulations, caseworker manuals and/or interviews with state administrators.

The Welfare Rules Database Is Born

Given the difficulties associated with researching state TANF policies, there was a need to establish a single location where the broad range of welfare stakeholders could research information on program rules across states and across time. The Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism (ANF) project responded to that need in 1997 with the creation of the Welfare Rules Database (WRD). We envisioned the WRD as a resource for researchers working on both descriptive and quantitative projects.

The WRD provides a longitudinal account of the changes in welfare rules in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The WRD organizes the detailed information on welfare rules across states, time, geographic areas within states, and different types of assistance units. Caseworker manuals and state regulations provide the data from 1997 to the present, while AFDC State Plans and Waiver Terms and Conditions provide the data for years prior to 1997.

For more information on data categories, the coding manual, and the data dictionary, go to the associated links.


Funding for the development and first four years of coding of the WRD was provided by Assessing the New Federalism (ANF). The project received funding from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The McNight Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, the Stuart Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, The Fund for New Jersey, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (HHS/ACF) began funding the WRD project during the 2000 update. Currently, HHS/ACF, in conjunction with The Department of Health and Human Services, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (HHS/ASPE), funds the collection of data and maintenance of the WRD.

Key Project Staff

To contact us, please e-mail WRD@urban.org

  • Linda Giannarelli, Project Director
  • Sarah Minton, Co-Project Director
  • Kathryn Stevens, Project Manager
  • Ilham Dehry, Research Analyst
  • Sarah Knowles, Research Assistant
  • Kara Harkins, Database Design and Support