Speaking of Women's Rights: Support Mothers, Support TANF

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Support Mothers, Support TANF

By Joshua Turnham

The Great Recession of the 21st Century hit everyone hard, but many people continue to struggle in the recovering economy. Poverty has grown in Washington every year since 2008—now over 14%—and the state is one of only three with rising rates of both poverty and income inequality. One of the (many) problems with our beloved capitalist society is that many people get left behind; this is why we have created various social safety nets to help people that do not benefit from the capitalist successes that others enjoy. Washington State currently has more than 288,000 kids living in poverty, yet the state has drastically cut funding to one of the most important safety nets for kids and families who have fallen on tough times: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people—particularly women—who struggle on a daily basis to clothe, house, and feed their children. About half of TANF recipients are single-parent families, primarily led by single mothers who need financial assistance caring for their children so they can find or keep jobs. But the current grant amount of $478 per month (for a family of three) is nowhere near enough to help families cover the necessities: the cost of some of the most basic needs—rent, heat, transportation, and health care—has increased statewide by an average of 46% since 2001. Meanwhile, the value of the grant has decreased by 34% percent, thanks in large part to the 15% legislative cut in 2011. Between that enormous cut and the state underspending each year, TANF has been cut, directly and indirectly, by $610 million since 2009, forcing more than 20,000 families off the program and resulting in nearly 55,000 fewer people receiving TANF funds in 2014 than in 2009.

As with most other benefits provided to citizens, various barriers have been erected to separate the supposed deserving from the undeserving poor. With TANF, one significant barrier is the work requirement. In Washington, TANF takes form in the WorkFirst program, through which only those who are actively seeking work are eligible to receive help with feeding their children. Putting aside for a moment the fact that—despite the economic rebound—finding and holding a job is still very difficult for many people, this false dichotomy between who deserves TANF and who does not ignores those whom TANF is supposed to help: the children. ClichĂ©s abound on how children are the future, they are always the innocent victims, and how they can’t choose their circumstances, so why do we create barriers for kids to get the resources they need to succeed?

Poverty alone creates huge barriers for young people, especially girls, and TANF is one of the tools we use to help young girls who face these barriers to have equal opportunity and to thrive. For example, several studies show that kids in the child welfare system experience pregnancy, child bearing, and STIs at much higher rates than the overall population of young people. Girls aged 17 and 18 in foster care are twice as likely to be pregnant than their peers in the general population. Young people in poverty who come into contact with the juvenile criminal justice system are more likely than their more affluent peers to be found guilty of delinquency. Unfortunately, girls are coming into contact with police and the justice system at higher rates than ever before, and once a young person has been incarcerated, she often can become stuck in a cycle of poverty and criminalization. If we continue to shortchange kids, we are only going to see more poverty and more kids in jail.

The Washington State legislature is currently considering a bill that would expand TANF eligibility. As of now, a person who receives TANF can remain eligible if they are participating in vocational training or education, but only up to one year—HB 1875 would double that time to two years. The bill has passed the House with 90 votes for and only 6 votes against and is pending in the Senate. This is a nice first step, but if the State only expands the pool of people who are eligible for TANF without increasing overall funding, even this bill will be, unfortunately, a hollow victory. Therefore, it is critical that we continue to encourage and pressure the legislature to support increased funding for TANF.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #84amonth—representative of the $84 in monthly funds that were eliminated in the 2011 cut—to see how you can get involved.

Joshua Turnham is a legal intern at Legal Voice and is in his last semester at Seattle University School of Law. He continues to be awed by blindness to systemic inequality.

Photo courtesy of CIA DE FOTO.