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Pandemic TANF Assistance Act Will Provide Much-Needed Aid, Protections to Families With the Least

The health and economic burdens of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on people of color and people with very low incomes — who faced significant economic and health challenges before the pandemic — and the new Pandemic TANF Assistance Act would provide financial assistance to many of these families and protection from the negative consequences of previous policies.

Past policy decisions and scarce investment in communities of color created disparities that put people of color at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, losing their jobs, and being unable to make ends meet during the current sharp economic downturn. Moreover, many of these families and individuals were left out of previous relief measures enacted in response to COVID-19.

The Pandemic TANF Assistance Act, introduced today by Senators Ron Wyden, Brian Schatz, Sherrod Brown, and Robert Casey, makes temporary but important changes to protect the recipients of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) from the impact of punitive and restrictive TANF policies and authorizes a $10 billion Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Grant Program through which states, territories, and tribes could help families and individuals.

The Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Grant Program includes three important features that we have previously identified as important:

  • Targeting to families and individuals with the lowest incomes. The funds are targeted to families and individuals with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line who have been hurt by the pandemic. Funds would go to states based on the number of poor households within their borders, so states with higher poverty would get a proportionately larger share of funds. Importantly, the fund also sets aside 3.5 percent of its dollars for the territories and tribes.
  • Flexibility in how the funds are provided, but with protections. States (including the territories and tribes) can use the funds to provide short-term cash, non-cash, and in-kind assistance to help families and individuals meet their basic needs and prevent household emergencies like evictions and utility shutoffs. States also can use the funds for subsidized jobs, but with important protections. As long as federal and state emergency declarations are in place, states can only use the funds for subsidized jobs that can be performed remotely or for essential jobs when personal protective equipment is provided. When the emergency declarations are lifted, states can use the funds for a broader array of subsidized jobs.
  • Easy and quick access for states. Given the need among families and individuals with the fewest resources, states must be able to access funds and get them to families quickly. To access the funds, states only have to submit a letter of intent, provide assurances that they will not use the funds to supplant other funds, and describe how they plan to use the funds. Importantly, the Act requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make initial grant payments to states within 30 days of enactment.

TANF often is the program of last resort for families with nowhere else to turn for assistance. Since the pandemic, states are seeing a substantial increase in the number of families applying for TANF benefits.

Importantly, the Act suspends TANF work requirements and time limits that could increase TANF recipients’ exposure to the harm of the pandemic. It prohibits states from imposing penalties on an individual or family that has not met a work requirement, completed an initial assessment, or complied with establishing paternity or a child support order. It also holds states harmless for not achieving and verifying TANF work participation rates, not complying with paternity establishment and child support state requirements, and extending assistance past the five-year time limit on benefits.