WorkFirst, Washington state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, provides essential support to families facing deep economic insecurity to meet their basic needs. It’s designed to protect kids and parents with very low incomes from the most harmful effects of poverty and support them to transition to long-term stability. Right now in Olympia, state lawmakers are considering important proposals to make critically needed reinvestments in WorkFirst/TANF that would help safeguard the health and well-being of some of the youngest Washingtonians and their caretakers – and legislators shouldn’t let them down.
Nearly three-quarters of those who receive WorkFirst/TANF assistance are children, which means that the program has a particularly important role to play in mitigating the impact of adverse childhood experiences (what researchers call ACEs) among kids in families with very low incomes in our state. ACEs include homelessness and housing instability, going without adequate food, and living with a parent experiencing a mental health crisis; they are often the result of, or exacerbated by, economic hardship. ACEs disrupt child development and can worsen kids’ health, educational, and economic outcomes into adulthood. WorkFirst/TANF should act as a stop-gap against these kinds of trauma, but state policymakers’ deep, repeated cuts to the program over the last decade have weakened its ability to reach families in need, leaving too many kids and parents across our state out in the cold.
We don’t mean that figuratively. Since 2015, more than a third of families removed from WorkFirst/TANF assistance due to punitive program cuts were homeless at the time they lost support. In 2019 alone, this included more than 1,800 children. Many families who are being cut off the program are also navigating significant health needs: about one third are facing a parent’s severe mental illness, and two in five are affected by substance use disorder. Kids and parents who are already furthest from opportunity because of structural and institutional racism are being hit the hardest. Some WorkFirst/TANF program cuts (like strict and inflexible time limits) disproportionately harm Black and American Indian families who often face greater barriers to work and well-being.
State policymakers’ deep, repeated cuts to WorkFirst/TANF have weakened its ability to reach families in need, leaving too many kids and parents across our state out in the cold.
We don’t mean that figuratively.
House Bill 2441 and Senate Bill 6478 would reverse harmful WorkFirst/TANF policy choices – like stricter time limits and harsher penalties when families struggle to meet program requirements – that drive these and other negative outcomes. By taking steps to strengthen the program’s ability to help families meet their basic needs, the proposals offer important benefits for child well-being. A stronger and more equitable WorkFirst/TANF program would have the power to:
- Help parents afford the things that children need to be healthy – rent, nutritious food, diapers, medication, and more. Research shows that when parents receive direct financial assistance, they use it to provide resources that support their children’s growth and development.
- Strengthen families. Direct financial reduces poverty-related stress among parents and kids alike, which has been shown to improve the quality of parent-child relationships and promote better health outcomes for kids.
- Set kids up to thrive in the long-term. Meeting kids’ basic needs now – when their families are experiencing the immediate crisis of financial hardship – has been shown to improve their ability to contribute to their communities and the economy in the future.
After a decade of dramatic caseload decline, the WorkFirst/TANF program reaches only 29 out of every 100 families living in poverty in our state – down from 50 out of every 100 families in 2008. Only a fraction of kids and parents facing financial crisis can access even the most basic level of support to meet their survival needs.
It’s time for state lawmakers to change course, so that WorkFirst/TANF can actually function as a shield against the harmful effects of child and family poverty. Passing House Bill 2441 and Senate Bill 6478 would be a good start.