In the wake of the 2008 recession, the Legislature made devastating cuts and imposed strict sanctions and time limits for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participation. Today, with a robust economy, the draconian requirements remain and too many struggling families cannot access help.

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Jennifer Fagan has a lot more to juggle than most college students. The mother of two small boys, one with special needs and the other with significant medical conditions, she is homeless and receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from the state.  If she falls just one hour short of her required 35 weekly classroom hours, her family could lose that vital assistance.

In testimony at the end of January before the Human Services Committee, Jennifer shared her story and her fears:

“The fear of being sanctioned is constant turmoil. What if there’s no gas money to get to school? What if there is no money to buy bread and peanut butter for lunches? The impact of being sanctioned, I’m sick about it a lot because I don’t want to fail my children at this point.

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“I have asked my boys to suffer silently at times by going to school sick or just ‘dealing with it.’ So, if I lost it now, it would all be for nothing. Being sanctioned means losing TANF.”

Not long ago, Fagan’s family was like many — just one paycheck away from economic catastrophe. Fagan and her husband weren’t wealthy, but they were getting by. Then her husband was injured, and Jennifer’s employer stopped paying her.

The $569 Fagan receives each month on TANF is a lifeline — and a tenuous one at that. Every day she lives in fear of being sanctioned and removed from TANF by an inflexible system, a product of state policies that are failing Jennifer and families like hers.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, the Legislature made devastating cuts and imposed strict sanctions and time limits for TANF participation. Today, with a robust economy, the draconian requirements remain and too many struggling families cannot access help. TANF formerly served nearly half of Washington families living in poverty but now serves only 19 of every 100 families in poverty.

In a region with an affordable-housing crisis, it is no wonder more than a third of families who have been kicked off TANF are already homeless.  This has disproportionately impacted children and families of color.

This is not how TANF, created to provide a gateway to greater opportunity, is supposed to work.

One of us, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, learned that lesson as a young man because he saw it work for his family. After his father was paralyzed in a tragic accident, his family’s main source of income was lost. Even as family members worked additional shifts, TANF was necessary to help them make ends meet.

Today, the Nguyen siblings are successful, running the gamut from a doctor to a small-businesses owner to an information-technology consultant to a state senator.

That is how TANF is supposed to work — to provide critical support that  gives families hope and a pathway out of poverty — and how it can work again.

We’ve introduced House Bill 1603 and Senate Bill 5684, companion bills in the House and Senate, to provide hardship extensions for families facing mental illness, homelessness and domestic violence. These bills also would reduce sanctions that deter parents from gaining employment and education, and punish their children in the process.

Over the years, the Legislature has restored the TANF stipend amount to pre-recession levels, though, the purchasing power of that grant has fallen. However, too many families are still unable to access TANF in the first place or lose their benefits during hardship when they need them the most.

We recognize the ambition of our plan to ensure needy families have access to these resources, but passing even one of the policy changes in this legislation could make the difference for thousands of families.

It would mean greater access, flexibility and desperately needed support for families such as Fagan’s. It would help more struggling families and would take a concrete step in breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Washington.