By Michelle Merriweather
President/CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle
Everyone deserves to have a safety net for when they fall on the hardest of times. A bill in the Washington State legislature could expand economic security for low income families. If passed, the bill would reinvest in WorkFirst/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) by eliminating full family sanctions, a policy that cuts children off from basic support when their parents struggle to meet program requirements.
WorkFirst, Washington state’s TANF program, is a lifeline for families facing profound economic insecurity and crises such as job loss, housing instability, and domestic violence. WorkFirst/TANF provides direct financial assistance to low income families with children in order to help them pay rent, keep the lights on, and buy diapers and clothing for their children. Beyond the provision of basic assistance, the program acts as a bridge to stability by providing supportive services such as job training and childcare.
Over the last decade the policy has been drastically gutted, which has weakened its ability to reach families in need. Policymakers enacted a series of policy changes such as stricter time limits and harsher penalties for families who struggle to meet program requirements. This has cut tens of thousands of families off of TANF support, causing them to be pushed into deeper hardship.
This legislative session, Rep. Debra Entenman and Sen. Joe Nguyen are championing bills to reinvest in TANF and provide a chance for more families to access the support they need in order to get their basic needs met. The goal is to end the full family sanction, so that kids are never cut off of assistance. Rep. Entenman says that the reason she is supporting this legislation is because, “this is the way to prevent homelessness and food insecurity. Right now the full family sanction makes it difficult for the families to be successful.”
This is entirely true. Parents who receive WorkFirst/TANF are striving for better lives – going to school or job training programs, searching for employment, or working hard for low wages (all while caring for their kids) – but they face barriers that can make it hard to reach a specified number of participation hours or comply with other strict program requirements. At the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, we see firsthand how pivotal TANF can be for families. For example, TANF is a valuable resource for families attending our job readiness program, Career Bridge. Additionally, many need assistance through Home Base, our eviction prevention program, because they were recently sanctioned from TANF. Children should not be cut off from support if their parents face barriers like not being able to arrange transportation or access childcare. Further, current TANF sanctions and time limits do not take into account mental health issues, employment discrimination and so many other barriers that people of color are more likely to face compared to their White counterparts.
Harsh TANF policy choices have harmed Black and Indigenous families the most. DSHS data shows that since 2015, Black families represent 30% of those cut off from support due to strict time limits, but only 19% of the TANF caseload. In 2019, more than one third of all households that were cut off TANF were homeless at the time they lost benefits. Entenman and Nguyen’s proposals would help all families throughout Washington State, but will have an even greater impact for families of color.
If the Washington State legislature wants to fight for economic justice and the end of homelessness, then they would want to ensure that families are allowed the essential benefits towards children’s success and security. Many new families need that extra boost of funding to ensure that they can meet their child’s basic needs. Having the cash benefit each month can go a long way in providing hope and opportunity for low income families.
So many of the families served by the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle are struggling to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living and childcare. That is why the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, among other organizations throughout the state, including Byrd Barr Place, Statewide Poverty Action Network and so many others are calling on lawmakers to reinvest in the WorkFirst/TANF program this session. It is an investment in our families and is needed to move toward greater economic justice and food security.
Michelle Merriweather is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, a nonprofit with 90 years of activism and community experience in the heart of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood, the Central District. The Urban League empowers African Americans and underserved communities to thrive by securing educational and economic opportunities. To find out more visit www.urbanleague.org.