But the Legislature did include more than $50 million to boost cash assistance for families in need, plus $5 million for nonprofits that distribute donated diapers, funding the so-called “diaper banks” directly for the first time.
Assuming Gov. Jay Inslee signs off, that means many low-income households will get more help with diapers and other basics, said Liz Olson, senior policy analyst at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank.
“We’re really celebrating,” Olson said. “This is a dramatically different approach than the Legislature took during the last recession.”
Households that receive cash through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, also known as welfare, will see their payments rise 15%. The current maximum monthly payment for a family of three will increase from $569 to $654.
That may not sound like much, but it’s the largest bump in the program’s history in Washington, Olson said. The payments have barely changed over decades, with cuts by lawmakers during the Great Recession only recently restored, she said. The increase will cost about $52 million over two years.
There were about 30,000 families on TANF and state family assistance in February; only very low-income households with children qualify. Even with the 15% lift, the payments aren’t enough, Olson said, adding, “This is just a start.”
TANF has a 60-month lifetime limit, but lawmakers passed bills this session designed to keep struggling households enrolled during the current economic crunch and downturns to come.
A Senate bill that would have exempted diapers from the sales tax had some Republican support but didn’t advance. Paul Guppy, vice president at the Washington Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank, said that tax-break approach would have been a better step. “If majority lawmakers say they care about the cost of diapers,” they shouldn’t be passing payroll- and gas-tax hikes “that will hit low-income people the hardest,” Guppy said.
The idea for a diaper stipend, which was included in the House’s budget proposal and which would have provided an extra $80 each month in TANF cash to households with children under three, “hit a nerve” with many Washington residents, said Rep. Tana Senn, who championed the concept.
Babies are supposed to be changed eight to 10 times each day, and disposable diapers can cost more than $1,000 over a year. That can sometimes lead parents to let bills go unpaid or change their babies less often. The stipend could have been used for diapers and other items.
Several constituents contacted Senn, D-Mercer Island, to share their stories about diaper desperation, she said. Some others suggested families use cloth diapers to save money. That’s not always a great option for busy parents without in-home washing machines, Senn said. Some laundromats ban diapers and some child care centers accept only disposables, advocates have pointed out.
“Parents are doing their best to figure things out and make it work,” and they should have choices, Olson said.
There was strong support for the diaper stipend among Democrats, but the benefit’s price tag was initially underestimated and the state agency responsible said implementation could take up to two years, said Rep. Tim Ormsby, a budget negotiator.
Lawmakers decided that funding diaper banks would get help to more families quickly and easily, said Ormsby, D-Spokane. “We did what we thought was the best we could do,” he said.
The state has never before funded diaper banks, said Sarah Cody Roth, executive director at White Center-based WestSide Baby. The money for diaper banks will cover about 29 million diapers, she said.
“Neither option was bad,” said Sen. Joe Ngyuen, who pushed for the TANF increase. The diaper stipend would have provided families with flexible cash, while diaper banks can serve households on and off TANF, he noted.