Washington state has cut funds to a program that helps poor children and families by 47 percent over the past 10 years, a new report shows, and advocates are demanding that lawmakers find a way to fix it.
The Washington State Budget & Policy Center crunched the numbers on WorkFirst, the state’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is a cash-assistance program created as part of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform.
The Budget & Policy Center found modifications to the program in the name of fiscal responsibility have significantly decreased the number of families since 2011 who participate in the program by restricting eligibility, enforcing strict time limits on benefits and implementing a three-strikes rule that forces families off of the program if they are sanctioned three times.
As caseloads declined, lawmakers used those “savings” elsewhere.
The state took this funding and diverted it to other programs for which WorkFirst families do not qualify, said Julie Watts, deputy director of the Budget & Policy Center.
“It’s almost like every time the caseload declined, it was an ATM,” Watts said.
That’s greatly decreased the number of families experiencing deep poverty served by the program, even as that same demographic has grown since the 2012-13 fiscal year.
The numbers are stark. In 2007-2008, more than 50,000 families in deep poverty in Washington state were on the WorkFirst program, according to the Budget & Policy Center. That number grew as the Great Recession deepened, peaking in fiscal year 2011 at an average monthly caseload of 65,140, according to the Department of Human and Social Services (DSHS).
The following fiscal years, more and more restrictions implemented by the state forced families off of the program, until the 2015-16 year — the last fiscal year for which data is available — when slightly more than 30,000 families participated in the program.
That’s not just a decline in the number of cases; it’s a large shift in the depth of need. According to the Budget & Policy Center, 10 years ago WorkFirst served more families than there were families with children in deep poverty in the entire state. By the 2015-16 fiscal year, WorkFirst served only a fraction of families with children in deep poverty.
Overall, WorkFirst was serving one in four families in poverty by 2015-16 compared to one in two families previously, according to the Budget & Policy Center report.
Even serving 50 out of 100 families in need is not enough, but it’s better, Watts said.
The state has known for several years that caseloads were in decline, and why.
A 2015 report from the Department of Health and Human Services points to five government policy changes that led to a downward trend line in monthly cases between 2010 and 2014:
• In February 2011, the amount of money families received was cut by 15 percent
• The same year, the state removed certain extensions that allowed families who were otherwise playing by the rules to stay on
• In November 2011, the state required children without parents to show that they met the income limits of the progam
• That same year, the state applied the federal 60-month time limit to child-only cases
• Finally, in December 2011, the state enacted a three-strikes rule: People who violated rules of the program three times were cut off entirely.
The changes have been hardest on the most vulnerable, especially the people who timed out of benefits.
According to the 2015 DSHS report, 64 percent of people who were forced out by federally mandated time limits had a mental illness, 25 percent needed drug or alcohol treatment and 23 percent had a chronic illness that might otherwise qualify them for disability insurance. However, only 7 percent transitioned to disability insurance, a program that is notoriously difficult to enter because of income restrictions and multimonth waiting periods.
Those folks who left the program because of time limits make up a lot of Sara Robbins’ caseload.
Robbins is the program manager for benefits legal assistance with Solid Ground. The program serves all of King County and the southern part of Snohomish County.
She and her team work with clients to navigate the complex rules around social assistance to connect them with services. Often, when it comes to WorkFirst, that means seeking an extension on benefits.
Prior to 2011, the state used local money to keep people on after the federal 60-month time limit. That changed in 2011.
“We were getting multiple calls a day from clients being terminated from TANF,” Robbins said. “We had a script that had all of these time-limit extensions, and we went through them with clients. Do you possibly meet any of these time-limit extensions?
“If you didn’t, there just wasn’t anything,” Robbins said.
Now most of the cases they see are people who applied for and were denied these extensions.
And, while policymakers knew the consequences of these changes in terms of the decrease in cases, the report from the Budget & Policy Center is the first to quantify the amount of money that has been siphoned out of the program, Watts said.
Since 2008, the Center found, state funding for WorkFirst has dropped by $179.6 million, or 47 percent.
It appears that lawmakers are willing to take another look.
The report dropped in January 2018, and advocates took it to Olympia. On March 9, the state approved a budget that included a requirement that DSHS submit a report by Dec. 1, 2018, detailing how much it would cost to restore WorkFirst to the way it was before 2011, reversing the policies that effectively removed families.
Shoring up the program at the state level may be important to a subset of families that find themselves unable to transition to work.
The Trump administration announced its intention to “grow the capacity of vulnerable individuals and break the cycle of dependency” through its welfare reform 2.0 initiative. The federal government has already rescinded an Obama-era memorandum regarding exemptions to TANF work requirements.
The administration also wants to strengthen work requirements by requiring states to spend a certain amount on work preparation. According to the Administration for Children and Families, states spend 9 percent of federal and state funding for needy families on work, education and training.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Wait, there's more. Check out the full March 28 - April 3 issue.