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January 31, 2020

Proposed TANF Improvements Will Help Rebuild the State’s Safety Net and Advance Racial Equity

An economy that works for everyone is one where all families are able to make ends meet and put food on the table, yet not every family in Virginia has benefited from the growing economy. The governor’s introduced budget makes critical investments in many families who aren’t able to make ends meet by strengthening Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, including a summer food program and lifting eligibility restrictions. TANF is a critical program that helps parents with low incomes afford basic needs such as rent, child care, and transportation. State legislators have the opportunity to go beyond the governor’s proposals and use available TANF trust fund dollars to help reverse the erosion of support for families with low incomes over the past two decades.

TANF is funded through a set amount of money from the federal government (a block grant) in combination with a certain level of matching state dollars. This money goes into a trust fund that is meant to be used to provide cash assistance and other supports to families during challenging financial times. But two decades of reductions in assistance levels and punitive exclusions built on racist sentiments about families of color with low incomes and people who receive public assistance have eroded benefits and left families unable to provide the basics. Meanwhile, Virginia has accumulated unspent funds in its TANF trust fund because money wasn’t used to help the families it was intended to. Legislators should accept the administration’s proposed improvements and use additional available TANF trust funds to further restore Virginia’s safety net.

Lifting the family cap 

A proposal by Del. Aird (HB 690) would lift TANF’s “family cap”, a policy rooted in a racist stereotypes about Black women and women of color, and the administration’s introduced budget includes the necessary funding for this change. The family cap currently denies assistance to children who were conceived while their family was receiving TANF benefits. Simply put, a family doesn’t get an increase in benefits even though their family has grown, further straining their ability to provide basics like diapers and food. 

Research has shown that while family cap policies have done nothing to affect birth rates, despite its attempt to serve as coercion in reproductive choices, it has increased the poverty rate for parents and children who receive benefits. By removing the family cap, Virginia would make a critical difference for families by getting them the assistance they need. 


Lifting the drug felony ban 

Several bills in the House and Senat — HB 566 (Del. Guzman), which incorporates HB 814 (Del. Ward) and HB 1130 (Del. Lopez), and SB 124 (Sen. Locke), which incorporates SB 155 (Sen. Favola) — lift the ban on people who have drug-related felonies on their record from receiving TANF benefits that emerged as a result of federal policies put in place in 1996. The administration’s introduced budget includes funding for this change.

Research has shown that lifting the ban helps people transitioning from incarceration gain access to critical resources for themselves and their families. And although the children of returning citizens are still TANF-eligible, the loss of assistance for a parent means less resources for the entire family. Expanding eligibility to TANF is a necessary, commonsense, and low-cost investment that would result in material benefits for families across the state. 

Increased income assistance 

The proposed budget also dedicates $6.7 million in non-general funds and about $740,000 in general funds to increase income assistance to TANF recipients by 5%. This is a much-needed improvement to TANF benefits, which have not kept up with the cost of living in the state, forcing families to make ends meet with less and less. In addition to helping families access needed resources, research shows that increased incomes result in long-term improvements for children’s health, academic, and future earning outcomes.

Although Virginia was one of several states to make small adjustments recently, the maximum monthly TANF benefit in Virginia ($442) for a family of three still leaves those families at around 24% of the federal poverty line. And although the 5% increase is needed, it is not enough to lift families out of poverty or even out of “deep poverty,” which is half the official poverty line. Money is available for a larger increase due to a surplus in TANF’s trust fund, and a higher increase could make a big difference in the lives of people who are supported by these benefits. 

Summer food program 

Families that rely on school meals for their students can face challenges when school is out for the summer. According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, 38 localities throughout the state have one or no community sites providing meals to children during the summer. The introduced budget addresses this issue by providing $50 each summer month through an EBT card for food purchases for children who live in an area without a summer meals program. The proposal would meet a crucial need in communities across the state. 

Legislators are also proposing other improvements to TANF benefits, including a $10 additional monthly benefit to help women purchase feminine hygiene products (SB 715, Sen. McClellan) and an easing of the two-year time limit (SB 187, Sen. Favola). 

The improvements proposed by legislators this year and funded in the administration’s proposed budget are a strong first step in rebuilding the state’s safety net and advancing racial equity. Legislators should approve these changes this legislative session and continue to rebuild TANF to create economic prosperity for everyone in Virginia. 

Economic Opportunity

Kathy Mendes

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