Imagine raising a family on $13.64 a day.
That’s the average amount of temporary cash assistance some of the poorest families in our community receive from the state if they qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
TANF helps struggling families do the things most of us take for granted, like stay clothed, fed, warm and clean. It helps children show up at school ready to learn, despite challenges like hunger and family stress. It helps parents meet the most basic needs while trying to get back on their feet.
With a lifetime maximum limit of 60 months, TANF recipients must overcome the barriers that put them in crisis and rebuild their lives. WorkFirst, TANF’s required job training program, helps half of families leave the program within a year.
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The district I represent, the 29th Legislative District, has the state’s highest caseload of families utilizing TANF. That means significant numbers of my constituents are struggling, and couldn’t make ends meet without this assistance.
Lawmakers can take steps this year to better support families in crisis and reduce the likelihood that children born into poverty remain in poverty.
First, I’ve introduced HB 1482, a bill bringing agencies together to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty. Understanding the root causes of intergenerational poverty helps in addressing them. And addressing them is critical, because poverty affects everything from kindergarten readiness to parents’ ability to bond with their children.
Second, it’s time to fully restore the cuts made to TANF in 2011, and remove the asset limits for cash savings and the value of a vehicle for TANF applicants.
Washington’s poorest families were hardest hit during the Great Recession when the state cut temporary cash assistance. Fully restoring the cut would mean an increase of $41 per month for a family of three. That might not sound like much, but it buys diapers or fills up your gas tank.
Removing asset limits for cash savings and the value of a vehicle to qualify for TANF would help keep families out of a deep financial hole from which they can’t emerge. Currently, having more than $1,000 in assets or a car worth more than $5,000 disqualifies you from TANF.
We’re requiring people become destitute, prolonging the amount of time they need assistance and costing the state more in the long run.
Third, I believe it’s time to increase the number of months of vocational education training that count toward mandatory work activity requirements for TANF recipients. Currently it’s 12 months, but many vocational training programs take two years to complete. That means after one year, things get dicey.
Participants can finish their education and continue to receive TANF by adding another 20-30 hours a week of an approved work activity. If they are committed to finishing their education but can’t meet these additional requirements on top of school, they lose their TANF and childcare assistance and fall deeper in financial crisis. The other pathway is to drop out of school in order to keep receiving assistance.
There’s a better way. By expanding the definition of work activity to include 24 months of vocational education training, people who are halfway there can finish their education and gain the economic stability needed to build a better future for themselves and their children.
These proposals may seem like a heavy lift when the Legislature is grappling with fully funding education. But if we’re going to close the opportunity gap and ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed in school, we can’t ignore the impacts of extreme poverty on our children and families.
Rep. David Sawyer, D-Parkland, represents the 29th Legislative District.