Lawmakers must reinvest in WorkFirst to restore the promise of basic support to families facing poverty

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Lawmakers must reinvest in WorkFirst to restore the promise of basic support to families facing poverty

By - January 30, 2018

We all want to live in a state where, when people fall on hard times, they don’t go without the basics – food, shelter, and necessities of daily life that allow them to look for jobs and get back on their feet. WorkFirst, Washington state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, is the main way our state protects children and families from the trauma and debilitating effects of poverty.
WorkFirst not only provides basic assistance to families in crisis, but it also is supposed to ensure they can move out of poverty through job training, child care, mental health, and support services¹.

However the program is headed in the wrong direction. As a result of harmful policy changes and budget cuts over the last decade, the program is serving a smaller portion of families in poverty than it was a decade ago. Lawmakers must make investments in WorkFirst to reach more families living in poverty and provide families with more help.

Today, WorkFirst helps only 25 families with children for every 100 living in poverty, down from 50 families for every 100 in 2008. (See graphic below.) The sharp, alarming decline in the number of families being helped by WorkFirst has been driven by dramatic cuts in funding. Since 2008, lawmakers have cut state funding for the program by 47 percent (adjusted for inflation), or $179.6 million, and used those funds to plug holes in other parts of the state budget.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

In 2008, 50 percent of families with children in poverty were on WorkFirst, but in 2016 that percentage dropped down to only 25.

Further, beginning in 2010, the governor and the state legislature made changes to the program that made it harder for families who were playing by the rules and meeting program requirements to get extensions to time limits. The changes also punished whole families (including children) when a parent failed to meet program requirements and gave families less time to come into compliance before they are cut off the program. Policymakers also cut the amount of cash assistance families could receive even as the cost of living was rising.

These decisions had a far more damaging impact than anyone anticipated. They sent the caseload into a free fall that continues today.

State lawmakers should make sure any new savings in the WorkFirst program that result from fewer families being served are reinvested to serve more families this legislative session. They must make sure that when families fall on hard times in Washington, they don’t go without the basics.

For more detailed recommendations on how to improve WorkFirst, see our policy brief, “Reinvest in WorkFirst: How we can restore the promise of basic support to Washington families facing poverty.” 

(1) In addition, a portion of the state’s WorkFirst caseload are “child-only” cases – children who are living with a family member other than their parents or children who are living with parents who are not eligible for TANF.
About Julie Watts, Deputy Director

Julie helps to implement the Budget & Policy Center’s strategic vision and oversees a range of research, policy, and external relations initiatives.

Read more about Julie