SCARBOROUGH — In a Maine Sunday Telegram article last fall, Staff Writer Eric Russell reported on the state’s unspent federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds and the impact of that stockpiling on people like TANF recipient Samantha Watson, who is a single mom with a young daughter.
She is determined not to remain on TANF and is attending school under the Parents as Scholars Program to earn a nursing degree. Although she is receiving assistance with her tuition, child care and some other college-related expenses, as a TANF recipient with one child, her maximum payment is $363 a month.
Let’s assume that moms under TANF also qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds (also known as food stamps), for which the maximum payment for a single mom with one child is $357 a month.
Some believe that TANF families also get lots of other help that effectively boosts their income to a livable amount, but this is far from reality. Just 7 percent of TANF families have access to a Housing and Urban Development Department housing subsidy; only 30 percent of the others get a small amount of additional help with housing, but still not enough to make ends meet.
As the food stamp program isn’t intended to meet a family’s full food budget, TANF benefits must be stretched to handle additional food and other needs such as housing, utilities, transportation, telephone and other essential non-food items like toilet paper.
True, there are food banks and other resources, but accessing these resources is not always easy and requires that one stand before their neighbors as a person unable to support themselves and ask humbly for help.
In thinking about your own life, how would you fare under this budget?
Those who visualize TANF recipients as relaxing on the couch at home munching gourmet popcorn in front of a massive flat-screen TV while laughing over how they have gamed the system need to rethink their misperception based on the uncomfortable facts.
So why is the situation so grim for these single moms who have fallen on hard times and are trying to make better lives for themselves and their children? One part of the answer is that the maximum amount of TANF benefits has not increased for the last 15 years.
If these payments had kept pace with inflation, Samantha’s monthly payment would be $493 – certainly not a windfall, but maybe TANF moms would be a little more secure.
Of course, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will be quick to reply that while it might be nice to raise the payments, there simply is not enough money in the budget.
That is where things become murky, because, according to the Telegram, the DHHS, while reducing the number of TANF recipients significantly, has been stockpiling federal funds designated for TANF. The unused balance, which was $1.5 million in 2012, has grown to over $155 million today.
While the DHHS promises that these funds eventually will be used for new and innovative programs to get TANF recipients back to work, how many moms could have been helped in the last five years to get the resources they needed?
As the DHHS reduced the number of TANF recipients, Russell reported, “the number of children who benefit from TANF has dropped from 22,425 in May 2012 to 8,461 (last) May. Yet there are at least twice that many children in extreme poverty.”
While the DHHS may be be able to claim success in helping some of those cut from the rolls to obtain employment, the overall outcome is dismal.
As an example of the benefit in assisting a greater number of children through TANF, a 2015 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarized a number of studies, concluding that “for young children raised in low-income families, even slight increases in family income – regardless of the source – are associated with more work and higher earnings in adulthood, relative to children raised in otherwise similar circumstances.”
Thus, TANF benefits should be seen not as a societal burden, but as an investment in the future of our children.
The current approach – which values statistics showing how many people have been cut from various supports and how far budgets have been reduced – seems in opposition to what data suggest is necessary to meet the critical needs of a vulnerable population.
Going forward, it is my hope that our legislators will reflect on this issue and, while doing so, I would suggest that they imagine that they are walking in the shoes of these challenged moms.