WorkFirst/TANF must be restored in our state

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WorkFirst/TANF must be restored in our state

Lawmakers should roll back program cuts that have worsened hardship for families in poverty

By - January 31, 2019

Far too many Washington families are just a layoff or health emergency away from deep economic insecurity and the risk of homelessness. When people fall on hard times, they shouldn’t go without the basics. WorkFirst, Washington state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, is designed to protect low-income families with children during their times of greatest need – acting as a critical bridge to stability and a shield against the harm of deep poverty. But over the last decade, state policymakers have made cuts to the program that have resulted in particular hardship for families experiencing homelessness and facing mental health challenges. House Bill 1603/Senate Bill 5684 would rightly roll back these harmful cuts to WorkFirst/TANF and ensure that more families living in poverty get the support they need to makes ends meet.

This legislation would clean up a series of policy changes that cut the WorkFirst program’s ability to reach families in need, and dramatically reduced the number of families receiving support. Whereas WorkFirst previously served 50 out of every 100 Washington families in poverty in 2008, today the program reaches just 25 per 100 families in poverty.

House Bill 1603/Senate Bill 5684 would address punitive policy changes like fixed and inflexible time limits, under which families can be cut off from support even when meeting all the requirements of the program and doing what’s asked of them by their caseworker. It would remedy the policy that cuts the entire family unit off assistance when parents struggle to meet work requirements – so that children also lose basic support. And it would address harsh permanent disqualifications, under which families can be denied any future assistance if they’ve had three incidences of difficulty meeting a program requirement in the past. With this new proposed legislation, lawmakers have the opportunity to strengthen and restore WorkFirst as a lifeline for families struggling to pay rent, afford transportation, and put food on the table.

New data from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services show that families experiencing homelessness or facing mental and behavioral health challenges are disproportionately harmed by time limits and harsh penalties. Our new fact sheet, “Harmful WorkFirst Cuts Worsen Washington’s Homelessness and Mental Health Crises,” details the impacts of some of these trends. For example:

  • During state fiscal year 2018, more than one in three families who were cut from WorkFirst were homeless at the time.
  • Nearly 2,000 homeless children were among the people cut off from support during that time frame.2
  • Since 2015, approximately seven in 10 parents or caregivers cut from WorkFirst due to inflexible time limits had mental health needs, and two in five had a need for substance use disorder treatment.3

Losing access to basic cash assistance and supportive services during times of crisis has profound consequences for both kids and parents – deepening trauma and further alienating families from the housing and health-care resources they need to be safe and healthy. WorkFirst policies should not penalize families when they’re not able to meet program requirements because of extreme hardship. Instead, WorkFirst should provide commonsense opportunities for struggling families to overcome barriers and get back on their feet.

This legislative session, Washington state lawmakers should pass this important legislation to strengthen WorkFirst so that kids and families don’t go without the basics. By choosing to reinvest in the WorkFirst program, Washington state lawmakers choose healthier kids, safer families, and stronger communities – where everyone has what they need to contribute and thrive.

See our new fact sheet for more details.

1.) Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analysis of Current Population Survey data for families below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.

2.) B&PC analysis of DSHS data on TANF recipient households terminated for reaching 60-month time limit and/or due to non-compliance sanctions, SFY 2018.

3.) B&PC analysis of DSHS data on head of household TANF recipients terminated for reaching 60-month time limit. Figure is a 3-year average of SFY 2015, 2016, and 2017 data.

About Liz Olson, Policy Analyst

Liz works on the research and policy team, where she focuses on anti-poverty, early learning, and related social policy. She is part of our organization thanks to a national fellowship program offered by the State Priorities Partnership – a national network of state fiscal policy organizations coordinated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Read more about Liz