In 1997, I became a teen parent. Without access to resources to care for my newborn, I was connected with the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, called WorkFirst. The program provided me with modest cash assistance of $440 per month. Although my budget was tight, TANF ensured I was able to keep a roof over our heads. I can honestly say the program was a lifeline. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to complete high school.
TANF is our state’s assistance program for parents with kids that fall on hard times, like I did back then. The program provides access to cash, child care, and opportunities to access services and education. Without support, children suffer from the extreme stress of not having a roof over their head or enough to eat. Many families are just a layoff, a health scare, or a crisis from financial catastrophe. For many of us it has been this way long before the pandemic.
Unfortunately, at a time when support for TANF should be more robust than ever, Washington has failed to adequately invest in this critical program. While families face heightened economic instability and skyrocketing housing costs, the state’s assistance levels have gone virtually unchanged since the 1990s. And their real purchasing power has plummeted.
Twenty-four years after I first found myself in need of TANF, I’ve needed to turn to the program again to help me support my two kids. If my family size was the same as it was in 1997, TANF would be providing us $459 per month. That’s right – in the past 24 years, the Legislature has increased TANF support for a family of two by only $19. It’s not possible to find an apartment in Clark County on this budget. Parents and kids on TANF today are regularly staying in shelters, living in their cars, or using cash to just get a room at a motel on especially cold nights.
It doesn’t have to be this way. State lawmakers must recognize the extreme hardship families on TANF are facing and meaningfully increase the grant to reflect real living costs.
If it wasn’t for a Section 8 voucher – something few struggling families are lucky enough to access – I’m not sure how I would afford my rent. While I would love to pay for my kids to be involved in sports or activities that would be good for their mental health, I need to make sure those TANF dollars cover our most essential needs.
It’s been difficult and traumatizing to go through the things my family has been through, but I am doing everything I can to make sure my family can survive. Parents and kids that fall on hard times don’t want to be on TANF; they want to have enough for their families to thrive. But when they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, families deserve to have somewhere to turn to help them weather the storm – and TANF is supposed to provide that security.
It shouldn’t have to be this hard for struggling families. We should live in a state where all kids can grow up safe and warm and well-fed. Lawmakers have recently made some important steps to improve access to TANF. It’s nevertheless long overdue for the Legislature to substantially increase the cash grant so we can give parents and their kids a stronger foundation.