This week marks the 25th anniversary of so-called welfare reform, which produced the program of cash assistance known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
TANF is an important source of support for my family and about 65,000 other kids and adults in Pennsylvania, but it is not enough. Pennsylvania needs to increase the TANF cash assistance grant for the first time since 1990. Prices have gone up over 30 years, and cash assistance should keep up.
I have two kids living with me: my 11-year-old daughter, who has both physical and mental disabilities, and my 17-year-old son. I used to work for Amazon, but I had to leave when my daughter’s medical problems acted up. I haven’t been able to work since the pandemic started, because schools were closed and I couldn’t get child care for my daughter. My daughter gets about $700 in disability income from Social Security. I get just $205 a month in TANF for myself. I am still trying to get cash assistance for my son, who moved back in with me in May 2020. When that is approved, I will get just $316 a month for two people to live on.
I use my TANF to pay for rent, transportation, household supplies like laundry detergent, PPE like masks, and clothing for my growing kids. It is not enough. Every month I budget my money, but I never have enough. If TANF grants had kept up with the cost of living since 1990, the $316 for two people would now be more than double, at $677 per month.
I am part of a coalition called Meet the Need, which is working to improve the TANF program. We just put out a report showing the results of a survey of parents on TANF like me. The parents we surveyed all said that cash assistance is important to support their families. People need cash assistance as a lifeline when fleeing domestic violence, or when they lose their job but can’t get Unemployment Compensation. The number-one issue the parents reported was that the TANF grant isn’t enough. The $403 a month that TANF pays for a typical family of three is not enough for children to grow up healthy and secure.
Our survey found other ways that TANF should be improved:
To qualify for TANF, parents shouldn’t be required to sue their ex for child support, if the parent thinks that wouldn’t be best for their child (since it might drive the other parent away).
The TANF work and education programs should do better at helping people get good-paying jobs, by helping remove barriers and providing training for quality jobs.
Parents should be able to keep more of their earnings when they get a job, so they don’t get cut off TANF right away when they start working.
And parents should be able to save more than $1,000 before losing eligibility for TANF — a resource limit that is one of the four lowest in the country.
Like many other parents during the pandemic, especially parents of disabled children, I’ve had to stay home to take care of my kids. But because TANF benefits are so low, I’ve spent a lot of that time worrying about how I will pay the bills. Raising the monthly TANF grant would require approval from the General Assembly. It’s time to support Pennsylvania’s lowest-income parents with an increase in the TANF grant amount to 50% of the federal poverty level (currently $915 a month for a family of three).
Leona R. Brown is a single mother living in Philadelphia with her children. She is a member of the Building Wealth and Health Network and of the Meet the Need Coalition.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.