WorkFirst, Washington state’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, is a critical resource that helps low-income families with kids stay housed, pay bills, and purchase food and essential items for growing children. It should be there when families need it.
However, due to program cuts implemented a decade ago during the Great Recession, WorkFirst policy changes have made it increasingly harder for families to stay engaged with TANF and get the assistance they require.
One particularly punitive policy the Department of Social and Human Services implemented in 2014 is the practice of permanently disqualifying families from the program if they do not meet rigid program requirements. This has led to diminished support for families who most need TANF and are already facing serious barriers, such as homelessness or chronic illness.
WorkFirst requires that parents meet rigid participation requirements each week in order to stay in the program. If they miss even a half hour of program engagement, they are sanctioned and lose their cash support. Receiving three sanctions means they are permanently disqualified from ever receiving TANF assistance again (even if they have not hit the 60-month federally allowable limit).
DSHS refers to this as “refusal to participate.” But we know that when parents are living in shelters or their vehicles, caring for children or family members with illness and special needs, or dealing with chronic illnesses that this is not about refusal to participate. This is about a rigid and inflexible system that places punitive compliance above a family’s dignity and their long-term transition to stability.
In fact, between July 2017 and June 2018, 40 percent of families who were permanently disqualified from the WorkFirst program were homeless at the time of disqualification. And, of course, this number grows when families are abruptly cut off from vital cash assistance.
Jennifer, a TANF recipient and mother who is homeless, knows the stress of sanctions and the threat of permanent disqualification well. As the mother of two boys with serious chronic illness, she, at times, faces the painful decision of staying at home with her children if they are too ill to go to school, thus missing her mandatory WorkFirst requirements. As she described in testimony at the House Human Services & Early Learning Committee hearing on January 30 (testimony starts at 42:30).
“I have not been offered any extenuating circumstances by my case manager. When you go to these people you pour your soul out to them and they know everything about you…, and they know what situations you are in. And I’ve asked if there are any extenuating circumstances… can I bring a doctor’s notes? “No, you need to be there, or you will be sanctioned.” So, the fear of losing a few hundred dollars a month may not seem like a lot to some people, but it is everything to us.”
House Bill 1603 would put an end to egregious permanent disqualifications so that WorkFirst/TANF is there when families most need it. This bill must be voted out of the House by Wednesday, March 13, or it will be dead for the session.