BEYOND THE NUMBERS
President Biden’s emergency relief plan includes $1 billion to help states deliver much-needed aid to families with the lowest incomes through state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs — which would mark an important step in the federal response to today’s extraordinary hardship across America.
One in 5 households with children are having trouble getting enough to eat and 1 in 4 are behind on their rent, the latest Census data show. Hardship is especially high among Black and Latino households, reflecting the systemic racism in our economy and society overall. Poverty and hardship, even for a short period, can have detrimental, life-long impacts on children, many studies show.
While more funding and policy changes are needed to address the unmet need for cash assistance, this additional $1 billion represents a significant investment in TANF. By providing these funds, policymakers could help states:
- Increase monthly TANF grants. Though more than a third of states have raised TANF grants since 2018, they remain woefully inadequate. In every state, benefits are at or below 60 percent of the poverty line, and in 18 states they’re below 20 percent of poverty. This month, Massachusetts became the first state to raise benefits since the onset of COVID-19; its increase (of 10 percent) was the state’s first since 2000. The proposed $1 billion in new TANF funds would enable states, especially those that have the lowest benefits or haven’t raised benefits in many years, to raise them. States in which benefits rise automatically each year or periodically could use the new funds for an additional, one-time increase to provide extra support to families.
- Help TANF recipients with increased expenses. Along with increasing benefits, states could provide additional cash payments to help TANF families cover new and higher expenses due to COVID-19. Several states have already done so. North Carolina, for example, issued one-time payments of $265 per child to TANF families in May. More recently, Maryland announced that TANF families would get $100 per month per person for six months.
- Improve TANF access to address increased need. With the onset of COVID-19, many states suspended certain policies that restricted access to TANF. Due to these actions and the steep rise in family hardship, TANF caseloads in some states have risen dramatically. Indiana’s caseload, for instance, grew by 57 percent between February and November, while Minnesota’s grew by 24 percent. Since annual federal TANF funding is fixed, TANF has limited capacity to handle caseload increases. New federal funds would help states expand access to cash assistance.
The $1 billion in new TANF funds would also help states avoid the cuts and punitive policies, like harsher sanctions and stricter time limits, that many implemented after the Great Recession of about a decade ago. Parents who leave TANF due to work sanctions or time limits are likelier to be Black, Indigenous, or people of color, research shows — and they also are the groups that have suffered the most during the pandemic. They are also likelier to fare poorly in the labor market and to experience homelessness.
To promote racial equity and prevent further hardship, the President and Congress should ensure that additional TANF funds are part of a robust relief strategy for families with children and work quickly to enact legislation that reflects this proposal.