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April 4, 2022

The TANF to Economic Security Pipeline: Why Legislators Should Continue TANF Progress

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community…

Constitution of Virginia, Article I. Bill of Rights

When families have enough income to meet their basic needs, their children have a better chance of growing up healthy and a greater opportunity to thrive. That’s why the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which helps parents with low incomes afford rent, child care, transportation, and more, is a vital tool for supporting Virginia families. Prior to the last few years, legislators did not increase TANF cash assistance levels even though the cost of living kept rising, forcing families to make ends meet with less and less. Meanwhile, Virginia accumulated unspent funds in its TANF trust fund despite also transferring funds to other programs as a General Fund cost-avoidance mechanism. State lawmakers should build on the progress made in the 2020 session and increase cash assistance levels, which would help to correct Virginia’s long history of racial and economic injustice and provide low-income Black communities equal footing in gaining economic stability. 

Last year, the General Assembly set a goal of increasing TANF standards of assistance by 10% each year until the standard equals 50% of the federal poverty level. This year, the Senate submitted a proposal to continue on the path to that goal by increasing the standard of assistance by 10% beginning July 1, 2022 (the start of fiscal year 2023) using $2.3 million from the General Fund and $18.4 million in TANF funds. The House budget does not include an increase in TANF benefit levels. As budget negotiations continue, there is still an opportunity to include this long overdue increase in the final 2022-2024 budget.

Image depicts a family, including smiling parents holding a baby and a young child coloring.

Beyond the problem of cash assistance amounts that have eroded over time, Virginia policymakers have often placed burdensome eligibility requirements on families for public assistance. Between income limits, work reporting requirements, and criminal background checks, gaining access to social benefits, such as TANF, can be as difficult as living without it. Work reporting requirement policies overburden families with low incomes – who already lead complex and stressful lives due to poverty. Studies show that limiting access to benefits correlates with recidivism rates. The less access that people who are reentering from incarceration have to public assistance, the more likely they are to return to incarceration.   

During the 2020 session, the General Assembly passed several pieces of legislation that improved the TANF program by reducing these barriers. House Bill 690 (Aird) lifted the TANF family cap, allowing Virginia to join over 30 states across the country that have repealed their family caps in recent years. A product of the Clinton-era welfare reforms, the family cap denied additional benefits for children born while a parent was enrolled in TANF assistance. This policy, rooted in racism, fueled inaccurate and harmful stereotypes of the “welfare queen” and contributed to the economic strain placed on low-income families trying to afford basic necessities. Along with lifting the family cap, lawmakers passed House Bill 566 (Guzman) and Senate Bill 124 (Locke), which repealed the “drug cap.” Another practice stemming from ’90s era welfare reform, this policy placed either restrictions or a complete prohibition on allowing people with drug-related felonies to access TANF benefits. This necessary repeal opened the door for people reentering their communities to access the resources they need for an opportunity to thrive in society.  

Providing cash assistance improves children’s long-term outcomes. 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.

The constitution of Virginia charges the state government with providing security for all people in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The time is now for Virginia legislators to take this assignment seriously and improve TANF assistance. Legislators should continue the work started during the 2020 session and support actions that will aid in the upward economic mobility of low-income communities and communities of color.

Economic Opportunity

Briana Jones

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