Help for Struggling Families: A Disappearing Act

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Help for Struggling Families: A Disappearing Act

By - June 16, 2015

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a major pathway to employment for parents struggling financially, helping them to support their families while looking for a stable job. Yet over the past several years, even as the number of Washingtonians living in poverty has increased, the TANF program has been severely weakened. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlights how the TANF program has fared in all fifty states since 1996, when it replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits. The findings are not pretty. TANF has been continually weakened, which is leading to devastating impacts for kids and families with low incomes.

The report shows that, in 1994, nearly 86 out of every 100 Washington families with kids who were living below the poverty line received AFDC benefits (see graphic below). This means that 86 percent of those Washingtonians had improved opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty when they fell on hard times. By 2009, just prior to the start of the recession, roughly 49 out of every 100 families whose incomes were below the poverty line were receiving TANF benefits. That number fell to 38 by 2012.


One in four kids in Washington face economic hardship during their childhoods. The stress of this can have lasting impacts on their health and well-being into adulthood. Given that just over 68 percent of TANF recipients in Washington state are children, strengthening this program should be a priority in budget negotiations. Kids do better when their parents do better, and programs like TANF help families struggling with economic hardship put food on the table and a roof over their heads while parents look for a job. It is not too late for lawmakers to take steps to stop TANF’s disappearing act in Washington state so all kids and families can have the right tools to get on the path toward economic security.

As the CBPP report shows, the decline of TANF is driven in no small part by cuts to state funding. In Washington state, for example, policymakers instituted harsh time limits that kicked off or locked out thousands of families at a time when our state was facing record levels of unemployment and rising poverty. This resulted in substantial declines in the TANF caseload. Policymakers have taken the so-called “savings” from these caseload declines away from TANF to balance the budget rather than reinvest in the weakening program, even as need increased. In addition, policymakers have reduced the already-meager cash grant by 15 percent, and overall TANF funding has been reduced by $610 million since 2011. All of these policy changes have severely weakened TANF’s ability to respond to increases in need.

Smart policy decisions can reverse this trend and strengthen TANF, thereby improving economic security for kids and families in Washington state. As budget writers continue negotiations in Olympia, it is imperative that they invest in families struggling to make ends meet by:

  • Fully restoring the TANF cash grant that was cut by 15 percent in 2011 so that families can meet basic needs while parents look for adequate and stable employment. Restoring the cash grant to pre-recession levels would provide families with an additional $84 a month to buy essentials like diapers, housing, and food.
  • Strengthening the TANF program through integrated policies that ensure long-term economic security for kids and their parents. This includes increasing job training, work supports, and education that leads to high-skill, high-wage jobs for parents and access to affordable, high-quality early learning opportunities for kids.

The most recent House budget proposal takes some important steps toward strengthening the TANF program, including a 9 percent increase in the TANF cash grant. Meanwhile, the Senate budget seeks to further reduce TANF funding by $50 million.

As they negotiate the final budget, policymakers must take steps towards making TANF the program it needs to be to ensure all kids and families can get back on their feet when they fall on hard times. An investment in TANF is an investment in the economic well-being of kids and families in our state.

Read the new report from CBPP here. Learn more about TANF in Washington state in this fact sheet.