Struggling Pa. families need more support; Lawmakers, Wolf need to boost TANF payments | Opinion

By Maria Pulzetti

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia recently surveyed over 100 Pennsylvania families who receive support from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). These are their words:

“I have no money coming in and I can’t pay my bills because of this virus.”  

“My kids are home from school being closed down, and we are going through things faster such as laundry detergent, dish soap, shampoo, toilet paper, garbage bags, etc.”  

“It’s never been enough to adequately cover monthly expenses.”  

The survey underscores what we suspected: Temporary assistance to needy family (TANF) benefits in Pennsylvania are crucial for struggling families, but they are not enough.

TANF is the only direct income support for Pennsylvania families in deep poverty.  A family of three with no other income receiving the maximum benefit gets just $403 per month, leaving them at just 22 percent of the federal poverty level.

Benefits have not increased since 1990, even though the cost of living has more than doubled since then.

Expenses are even higher during the pandemic: “I have to purchase masks, cleaning supplies and pay extra for internet and phone services,” one respondent said.

The benefit level, set by Pennsylvania, is insufficient for any family to meet their basic needs. Because of systemic racism and historic disinvestment in Black communities, TANF serves a disproportionately high percentage of Black families: 53 percent of TANF recipients in Pennsylvania are Black. Ignoring the crisis in TANF is ignoring a crisis for Black families.

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of TANF, which replaced the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in 1996.

Although labeled “welfare reform,” TANF’s burdensome requirements and the decreasing value of benefits have caused a precipitous decline in the number of poor families served. In 1996, over 193,000 Pennsylvania families received AFDC, but in December 2020, only 31,000 families received TANF. Unfortunately, TANF has shrunk dramatically without a corresponding decrease in child poverty.

The policies implemented in 1996 reflect long-standing policing of Black families and Black motherhood.  From the time of slavery, those in economic power defined “work” as labor that produces wealth for others, devaluing family care and other labor at home.

Slaveholders created the trope of Black laziness to justify the forced labor of slavery.  When federal public assistance programs such as Aid to Dependent Children began during the New Deal, states administered eligibility and benefit levels.

This allowed states to institute work requirements designed to exclude Black families from benefits, such as denying benefits if a recipient was needed to work in the cotton fields.

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Although Black women have always participated in the labor force at higher rates than white women, the stereotypes originating in the time of slavery continued through the “welfare queen” trope of the 1980s and the work requirements of today.

Other TANF policies also reflect policing of the Black family, including not allowing parents to make decisions about the best interests of their children concerning child support, denying benefits to applicants who have criminal records, and immigrant ineligibility.

Poverty during childhood has lasting consequences for health, developmental and educational outcomes.  While 17% of Pennsylvania children live in poverty, Black and Brown children are disproportionately impacted.  More than 1 in 3 Black and Latinx children live in poverty.

Moreover, the pandemic has deepened longstanding inequity.  Black and Latinx families bear the brunt of the pandemic’s health and economic consequences.

In the past year, fourteen states and the District of Columbia have increased TANF benefit amounts.

As one mom told us, if TANF benefits increased, “I wouldn’t need to ask agencies for help with things like clothing, toiletries, hygiene products, things like that so often. I wouldn’t have to choose between school pictures or paying the light bill.”

Pennsylvania can increase TANF benefits, and this should be a core commitment in the state’s work to undermine the legacy of racism.

Teresa Miller, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Human Services, recently released a courageous report acknowledging the impact of systemic racism on programs and policies including TANF.

It is long past time for Pennsylvania to increase TANF benefits for families in deep poverty who are struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

Maria Pulzetti is a Supervising Attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS). CLS is a member of the Meet the Need Coalition, which is focused on strengthening TANF in Pennsylvania because no child should live in deep poverty.