Under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, most states restrict a family’s eligibility for cash assistance to those living below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). These families struggle to meet their daily basic needs. These children live in desperate conditions of homelessness or unsafe housing, hunger and isolation, just to name a few. Their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and transportation are not being met, let alone their ability to be kids by participating in school or community activities. These children are being isolated from society because they are poor.
America’s poorest children are those with little support. There are currently 3.1 million children living on the cash assistance payments under the TANF program, which varies widely by state. The current maximum benefit level for a family of three ranges from $923(2) in Alaska to $170 in Mississippi,(3) both remaining unchanged since 1999. The average amount of cash assistance a typical family of three receives in the United States is $432 a month. How many of you could pay rent, utilities, food, or even personal household items out of this amount? Sure, these families probably receive Food Stamps and Medicaid too. But, Food Stamps, when implemented, were never intended to meet the household’s full food costs. The maximum amount of Food Stamps for a family of three is $426 a month, but the average is more like $208 a month.(4) Even when combined, could you survive on $640 a month in cash and Food Stamps?
Just because these families likely qualify for Medicaid coverage from their receipt of cash assistance doesn’t mean we should ignore their most basic needs. Childhood is supposed to be fun; kids shouldn’t have to worry about health insurance, food, shelter, clothes or when they are going to move again. Unfortunately, families living at 50 percent of the FPL or lower have no way of protecting their children from those thoughts and ensuring a happy childhood.
This chart shows the current cash assistance benefit for each state and how it relates to the poverty level.
As one can see, these families live in desperate conditions, far below the 300% Medicaid expansion. A family of three living in Mississippi is at a meager 11.88% of the poverty level, while receiving only $170 in cash a month to survive. Twenty-one states give a family of three less than 25% of the poverty level. Just two states, Alaska and California, issue cash benefits to a family of three at slightly above 50%.
As one can see, these families live in desperate conditions, far below the 300 percent Medicaid expansion. A family of three living in Mississippi is at a meager 11.88 percent of the poverty level while receiving only $170 in cash a month to survive. Twenty-one states give a family of three less than 25 percent of the poverty level. Just two states, Alaska and California, issue cash benefits to a family of three at slightly above 50 percent.
What is the federal government doing to help these kids? Absolutely nothing. Why? Who knows? It’s not as though they don’t have the money; it’s already been issued to the states. But there is no federal oversight to make sure that states are focused on meeting the basic needs of our poorest children. States have the flexibility to issue cash assistance or other support programs, like child care and transportation however they see fit. Most states use only a small portion of their TANF funds to support cash assistance; only 38 percent nationwide.
Yes, it is a parent’s responsibility to care for their children. This adage makes no room for the scary possibilities that often become realities for families: job loss, disability, illness, economic downturns and other unforeseeable events that can devastate even the most economically stable families.
Families receiving cash assistance are means tested, put through a rigorous application process, comply with strict work rules, and they put aside their pride to even apply. These families want to work; they want to provide for their children.
Are the President and Congress ready to fight the same battle as the current SCHIP debate for our nation’s poorest children? How long do these families have to wait to put food on the table and a roof over their heads? These 3.1 million children living in extreme poverty as America’s poorest children need help now.
1. Federal Interagency Forum on child and Family Statistics. America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007. Found at: http://childstats.gov/americaschildren/eco1.asp, last accessed October 29, 2007.
2. Alaska Temporary Assistance Program. Income Limits and Maximum Payments. Found at http://www.hss.state.ak.us/dpa/programs/atap/, last accessed November 1, 2007.
3. Mississippi Division of Economic Assistance. TANF-Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. How much will the TANF payment be? Found at http://www.mdhs.state.ms.us/ea_tanf.html#How%20much, last accessed November 1, 2007.
4. United States Department of Agriculture. Food and Nutrition Service. Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation. Characteristics of Food Stamp Households: Fiscal Year 2006 Summary. September 2007. Found at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/oane/MENU/Published/FSP/FILES/Participation/2006CharacteristicsSummary.pdf, last accessed October 29, 2007.
[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]