By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium
In today’s economic climate families are finding it difficult to make ends meet. Here in the Pacific Northwest although the job market seems to be stabilizing since the 2008 recession, homelessness has risen dramatically.
Over the years, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a safety net designed to assist families under the WorkFirst program, has been instrumental in stabilizing many families in the state. However, recent cuts to TANF have affected impoverished communities and working the poor — particularly African Americans, Latinos and Indigenous people.
According to Washington state statistics, since 2015, under harsh and inflexible time restraints, thirty percent of the people who were cut off of TANF were African American, despite making up only nineteen percent of the recipients.
Data from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services data shows that:
• During 2018, more than one in three families who were cut from WorkFirst were homeless at the time.
• Nearly 2,000 homeless children were among the people cut off from support during that time frame.
• Since 2015, approximately seven in 10 parents or caregivers cut from WorkFirst due to inflexible time limits had mental health needs, and two in five had a need for substance use disorder treatment.
House Bill 1603 (HB 1603), proposed by State Rep. Tana Senn (D-41), chair of the House Human Services and Early Learning Committee, looks to revive the economic assistance program by updating the standards of need and reducing barriers to participants. Examples of such measures and data include geographical areas, family size, shelter, fuel and transportation, child care and health care, to name of a few.
According to Liz Olson, with the Budget and Policy Center of Washington, “Over the last decade state policymakers have made cuts to the program that have resulted in particular hardship for families experiencing homelessness and facing mental health challenges. House Bill 1603/SB 5684 would rightly roll back these harmful cuts to WorkFirst/TANF and ensure that more families living in poverty get the support they need to makes ends meet.”
Although TANF is essentially a temporary answer for hardship that families may be experiencing, it is nonetheless a very important and necessary reality for families in need and unfortunately families of color and refugees are affected by the past cuts disproportionately.
Julie Watts, Deputy Director of the Budget and Policy Center, has taken into account how these cuts are affecting families of color which she believes possesses a racial bias and lawmakers must understand how changing policy can help to counter the cuts from the past.
“It is important to lawmakers to understand that harsh and inflexible time limits are racist at their core,” says Watts. “Not only is racial bias very likely informing the decisions that caseworkers are making about who gets time limit extensions and who doesn’t, but these policies don’t take into account the various forms of institutionalized racism that Black families face every day.”
“Harsh and inflexible time limits don’t take into account what families are dealing with in employment discrimination, racism in public education and other unique barriers to economic security,” Watts Continued. “Harsh and inflexible time limits make sure that those with the fewest barriers get help, but those who face more and bigger barriers to jobs and economic security don’t.”
If passed by the state senate and signed into law, HB 1603 would:
• Eliminate full family sanctions, so that children and dependents are not completely cut off when a head of the household can’t meet work requirements.
• Eliminate permanent disqualifications and instead allow staff and enrollees to work on compliance to restore benefits.
• Ensure that families are not denied benefits because they were unable to attend an orientation session as well as allow parents who are “playing by the rules” and meeting the requirements of their Individual Responsibility Plans to receive extensions on the time limits.
State Rep. Debra Entenman (D-47), a member of Legislative Black Caucus and a co-sponsor of HB 1603, says that the changes to the program outlined in HB 1603 are instrumental in helping to curb the disproportionalities incurred by people of color.
“A disproportionate number of African Americans, Indigenous people and Latinos are being sanctioned and even cut off permanently from assistance,” says Entenman. “We are asking ourselves what can we do as an organization to help people rather than being a punitive organization. This measure is a step in the right direction.”