State lawmakers have stripped a bill of key provisions that could help Black and Indigenous families stay on a government program that provides benefits to families in poverty.
House Bill 1603 would have made it easier for families to stay on the program past its current five-year limit, preventing those who rely on the program from being cut off from benefits when they still need them.
Nineteen percent of individuals on Washington’s WorkFirst program are Black, and 9 percent are Indigenous. Despite that, 30 percent of people kicked off the program due to time limits are Black and 12 percent are Indigenous, according to a report from the Washington Budget and Policy Center (WBPC).
“The harsh and inflexible time limits have racial bias at their core,” said Julie Watts, deputy director at the WBPC.
As originally drafted, House Bill 1603 would have made it easier for families to stay on WorkFirst, Washington’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, past the five-year limit. It also would have removed certain requirements of the program and prohibited the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) from permanently banning a family for violating rules, such as refusing to work.
These provisions could help Black and Indigenous families stay on WorkFirst. They are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to leave the program due to time limits or be denied an extension, according to the WBPC analysis.
Research from Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida suggests this may be due to bias on the part of caseworkers. Black people and other people of color are sanctioned at significantly higher rates than White people. Caseworkers in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida were more likely to sanction Black mothers than White ones for violating TANF requirements.
“Caseworkers exercise a certain amount of discretion when they consider whether a family’s circumstances fit within the narrow range of hardship that would qualify them for an extension,” said Liz Olson, a WBPC analyst.
The Department of Social and Health Services agrees that there are disproportionate impacts on Black and Indigenous families, and that the declining caseloads do not mean that families are climbing out of poverty, said department spokesperson Kelly Stowe.
“The grant standards are very low and even part time work at minimum wage often makes someone income ineligible for the program,” Stowe said. “While there are clients who hit the 60-month time limit and exit the program for that reason, we know that is not the only reason for the caseload decline.”
Representative Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick) originally opposed the bill, but ultimately voted for the pared down version. The original legislation axed certain requirements and gave families more leeway on the program’s 60-month limit. The key term in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is “temporary,” Klippert said.
The newest version provides more flexibility, but maintains accountability, Klippert said.
The bill made it over a critical hurdle, passing the House before the March 13 deadline, but legislators axed provisions around extensions. The changes cut the cost of the bill from roughly $63.1 million to $2.7 million, according to the state’s fiscal analysis.
The revised bill would prohibit the state from banning a family from the program permanently if they incur three or more sanctions for breaking the rules.
That’s helpful, Watts said, but it doesn’t address the equity issues raised by WBPC’s analysis. “We need the state legislature to pass this legislation, and to put back in the bill many of the things they took out,” Watts said.
WorkFirst already had problems.
Between 2006 and 2016, the state cut funds for the WorkFirst program by 47 percent, according to a previous analysis by WBPC.
Lawmakers believed that the declining number of families on the program meant that more people were climbing out of poverty, Watts said.
That was not the case. By the state’s own figures, less than 60 percent of families on WorkFirst leave the program because their economic situation improved or because they requested to leave.
Just over 40 percent of people are cut for “procedural reasons,” which can include things like running out of time or otherwise falling off the program.
In fiscal year 2015-16, WorkFirst served only one in four families in poverty in Washington state, down from half of all impoverished families a decade earlier.
The caseload has dropped precipitously from 70,000 families to 25,000, according to the WBPC. Roughly 2,000 homeless children were kicked off of the program in 2018.
Sanctions include not complying with work requirements.
The policy is “nonsensical,” Watts said. “If you don’t have a roof over your head, how are you supposed to jump through all of those hoops to meet work requirements?”
But WorkFirst could face further cuts. The proposed state budget would reduce WorkFirst by another $18 million based on “caseload decline.”
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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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