Temporary assistance program faces more cuts

State has already tightened eligibility, reduced grants

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Participation in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families federal welfare program skyrocketed between 2007 and December 2010 due to the economic downturn. But that number dropped off dramatically in February, when the state tightened eligibility requirements to help offset what has become a chronic revenue shortfall since 2008, according to statistics from the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Some 21,255 state residents lost the federal cash assistance that month. The number of those left to fend for themselves in a climate of growing need illustrates some of the immediate impact on the poor from state and federal budget cuts. More cuts to TANF, as well as a laundry list of other rollbacks, could be on the way under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal now under consideration by a special session of the state Legislature. Lawmakers will either have to shear $2 billion in spending to balance the budget or raise new revenue, or some combination of both.

“Every one of the cuts that comes limits the things we are able to do,” said Rob Gimlin, WorkFirst program supervisor at the DSHS Community Services Division’s Vancouver office. “It just reduces our ability to help people.”

Between December 2007 and December 2010, TANF recipients burgeoned by 37.6 percent across the state. The need was even more pronounced in Clark County, where caseloads went up by 40.2 percent during the same period.

“In 2006 and 2007, we had the lowest number of people on TANF during the 13 years I’ve been here,” Gimlin said. “That’s when we hit a low spot. With the recession, it’s really increased those numbers.”

In February, however, the state began turning people away. The state reduced the income threshold for eligibility and the duration of benefits. That meant not only were thousands of recipients immediately dropped from the rolls, but fewer also were able to qualify.

Tough making ends meet

For a family of three — the average family size in the state — eligibility was reduced from monthly income of $562 to $478 for the jobless and from $1,124 to $956 for a family with at least one employed member.

The amount of cash assistance also was reduced, from $562 to $478 per month for a family of three. The amount of the grant is identical to the maximum income for eligibility.

That grant would shrink by another $10 under the governor’s budget proposal, Gimlin said.

Reduced cash assistance grants combined with climbing rents has made it difficult even for families who receive TANF to pay rent. Despite receiving assistance, some still have to move in with family members or friends, Gimlin said. Without cash assistance, they are reliant on those family and friends for other needs, as well.

Vancouver resident Desiree Jackson is one example of that. The 22-year-old Portland Community College student and her 6-year-old daughter live with Jackson’s mother and sister.

The family moved to Vancouver eight months ago from Brooksville, Fla., north of Tampa, with hope of starting a better life. Brooksville’s economy was worse than Clark County’s. Brooksville has more than 13 percent unemployment and no job growth, compared with a 12 percent unemployment rate in Clark County and modest job growth.

The family was excited when Jackson’s mother quickly landed a job as an accounts receivable clerk in Vancouver. Just six months later, however, her mother was laid off.

Despite their misfortune, Jackson and her mother said the state offers more assistance to people in need than Florida and responds quickly to people in emergency need.

The family now lives off her mother’s unemployment benefits. On Thursday, Jackson was approved for a TANF grant of $380 per month to help pay for her and her daughter’s expenses.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be very temporary,” Jackson said. “It’s not a lot of money, but it definitely helps, especially because it’s Christmas. My daughter is in the first grade, and I have to pay for school pictures.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.