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An Interview With Moriah Geer, Former TANF Recipient, on the Human Costs of Taking Assistance Away for Not Meeting Harsh Work Requirements

As we continue to see proposals to take assistance away from people who do not meet strict work requirements, this firsthand account from Moriah Geer, a former Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipient, shows the harmful impacts and unintended consequences of such policies. Moriah, who now works as a policy analyst with an economic justice organization, spent three years receiving income assistance through TANF and was subject to work requirements during that time. Given the recent legislation that expanded work requirements for food and income assistance programs and prominent legislative proposals to go even further, she has agreed to share her personal story with CBPP. Moriah is very concerned for other parents who are enrolled in TANF and other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, and she does not want them to experience even worse challenges than she did.

How did you end up participating in TANF?

About a decade ago, I found myself homeless and living in a domestic violence shelter with my two small children. After the $1,000 I received from my ex-husband’s monthly check stopped, I had no choice but to apply for TANF. I applied with trepidation because I had witnessed how poorly a family member was treated who needed TANF and was caring for a severely disabled child.

During the time I was in the domestic violence shelter I had done a lot of thinking about how to move my family from that place of poverty and trauma to a place of stability. I concluded the best path forward was education. I enrolled in college before applying for TANF.

What was your experience trying to complete your education while participating in TANF?

My TANF worker allowed me to focus on my education, though I was told by my second year of school I needed to be working at least 30 hours per week. I only received a TANF grant of $545, and my rent was $1,000, so I was already quite motivated to go to work and I found a job on campus the first week of classes. I had several jobs while in school because the assistance I received, while completely necessary, was not enough. During most of the time I was in school, I was working two different jobs while juggling full-time classes and raising two children.

Given that you were already in school full time and working, how was your life affected by the constant threat of losing your TANF benefits if you did not meet very strict work requirements?

Unfortunately, all the things that I was doing never seemed like enough and I was sanctioned (had my benefits reduced or taken away) multiple times anyway. I had to provide a lot of unnecessary and burdensome documentation to prove that I was attending classes and working. For example, once a month I had to go to every professor and ask them to sign a paper verifying that I had been attending my classes. I was in my thirties, older than some of my professors even, and it was humiliating to request that signature each month. It made me feel like a child.

Every few months something would go wrong with my paperwork, and I would not receive my TANF benefits. I would have to drive to the TANF office, wait in line, and ask what happened every time. Fortunately, I was usually able to solve the problem, but it took time and energy I did not have. Eventually, I decided to just go in person and deliver my paperwork by hand, but even then, there were months when I didn’t get my benefits. I learned to keep multiple copies and to email them at the same time so I had a sent receipt with a date on it.

During the summer it often was not possible to take enough classes to be considered full time, and there were a couple of summers where the campus job I had was closed during the summer. One summer, the TANF office set me up with a volunteer placement at the local animal shelter where I cleaned litter boxes, fed cats, and swept floors. None of these were skills that were even remotely useful as I moved towards my chosen career. It was a way to check a box that stated that I was doing enough hours. Not only was it mindless labor, but the time I had to spend there made it impossible for me to look for a paid job. I ended up having to open up a credit card to make sure that we had enough food on the table and to cover the things we needed. I am still carrying much of that credit card debt that I incurred during my time on TANF.

What led you to eventually leave TANF?

I had a major surgery at the start of my senior year, and when I told my caseworker about it, she was very dismissive. When I had difficult complications after the surgery and I had to withdraw from one of my classes, I did not believe my caseworker would take me seriously. I was afraid that I would just be sanctioned and required to do extra activities. Instead, I dropped off TANF and took out extra student loans to cover the loss of income and supportive services. I had no idea that I could have provided documentation from my doctor verifying the health issues I was having and the need to drop the class. It seemed like it was entirely up to the discretion of the caseworker to be understanding or to sanction me. At no time during my years on the program did anyone at the TANF office educate me on my rights under the program — only the program requirements.

What most concerns you looking ahead?

I would not be where I am today if it were not for the TANF program, and I will always be grateful for the assistance I received. But I don’t want other parents to go through what I went through. I’m invested in parents having opportunities to pursue education and fill important workforce needs. I also have a personal reason for wanting to make TANF a better program. I have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and am now in a wheelchair, and eventually I will likely need to stop working and apply for Social Security Disability. Given that it often takes some time to get approved for those benefits, there is a good chance that my children and I will end up making use of TANF again. I shudder to think of the types of work participation they will ask me to do from a wheelchair.

TANF’s work requirements are deeply flawed. We should be working to improve them, not make them worse. Making it harder for people to get food, health care, education, and income support will make it harder for people to find jobs. That’s just common sense.