Real Change recently highlighted a number of bills focused on reducing poverty moving through the legislature (Anti-poverty bills moving through Washington legislature, March 31, 2021). In addition to these bills, the House and Senate’s recent budget proposals also make critical poverty-reduction investments required to strengthen Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
TANF is our state’s lifeline for families with kids. When parents fall on hard times — a job loss or employment discrimination, a disability or domestic violence — TANF is supposed to be there to ensure these families don’t go without basics, like a safe, warm home and food on the table. However, since TANF’s inception in 1996, the grant in Washington state has remained largely unchanged.
In fact, the inflation-adjusted value of the grant for a family of three has dropped 38% in the past 25 years, and this has happened at the same time rents have skyrocketed. In Seattle, the TANF grant now covers only 29% of fair market rent, meaning greater numbers of these families are experiencing homelessness and housing instability. This chronic disinvestment in TANF at the state and federal levels is rooted in racism, shaped by the enduring power of anti-Black, sexist stereotypes and false narratives that attribute poverty and systemic inequality to individual behavior.
The budgets released by House and Senate Democrats this week take important steps to begin to rectify this. The Senate budget proposes a 15% increase to the TANF grant — raising the monthly maximum benefit for a family of three from $569 to $654. The House budget proposes just a 10% grant increase, but includes funding to add an $80-per-month diaper benefit for families with kids under age three — an essential expense not covered by other assistance programs.
Importantly, the House budget also includes funding for a continued two-year suspension of arbitrary time limit policies that were frozen during the pandemic. This means families won’t be cut off from the program while still in need of its support. This is especially important because data from the state demonstrates that these time limit policies disproportionately remove Black and Indigenous families from the TANF caseload. These suspensions should be paired with Senate Bill 5214 (highlighted in your article) which would allow for time limit extensions during any future periods of steep economic downturn.
It’s long past time the legislature bolstered investments in TANF. If enacted, these important investments in the House and Senate budget will result in greater peace of mind and security for more parents and kids in our state.
Senior policy analyst at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center
Read more in the Apr. 14-20, 2021 issue.