COVID-19 has hit families who live paycheck to paycheck hard. Even though over 2.7 million Floridians have lost jobs or suffered a reduction in wages, they still have to pay bills and buy necessities. Many families also have additional expenses that they did not have prior to the pandemic. Although Reemployment Assistance (RA) should be their lifeline during this health crisis, almost one million Floridians who have applied for unemployment have not yet received any unemployment assistance at all.
Families need more help to stay afloat.
One way that the Sunshine State can assist impacted families with children is through its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Because TANF is a block grant, Florida has significant flexibility under federal law in how it chooses to spend TANF funds. So long as funds are spent on one of the program’s purposes, Florida could use TANF to help families with low income in two different ways:
Despite this significant flexibility, Florida is not maximizing its use of TANF to respond to the pandemic. While roughly 4,000 new families have turned to TCA since the pandemic started, benefit levels in Florida are too low to make ends meet. Still, other families are excluded from TCA altogether because their income is slightly too high or they have more than $2,000 in countable assets, even though they are struggling just as much. At the same time, the state has done little, if anything, to clarify ways in which short term, nonrecurring TANF assistance is available to help families who have been directly or indirectly impacted by coronavirus. Additionally, state officials continue imposing unnecessary administrative requirements on TANF applicants and recipients that keep them out of the program.
The following are three steps that Florida policymakers should take now to put TANF funds to the best use during the public health emergency.
The income of families participating in TANF cash assistance is inadequate to meet a family’s basic needs, much less cover additional costs related to COVID-19.
Despite inflation, the Sunshine State has not raised TCA cash assistance levels since 1992.
The maximum TCA benefit for families in Florida — $303 for a family of three — has degraded to only about 17 percent of the poverty level, which is too low to keep a roof over a child’s head, pay the light bill, and buy school clothes, much less to pay for unexpected pandemic-related items. For every 100 families living in poverty in Florida in 2017-18, only 12 receive TCA, compared to 55 out of every 100 families in poverty in 1995-1996. If Florida’s TANF program had the same reach as it did in 1996, three times as many families would qualify for the cash assistance, they need to meet basic needs.
Inadequate TANF payment levels only heighten racial economic disparities in the Sunshine State.
The poverty rate of Black children in Florida is much higher than the state average. This economic inequality is reflected in the TANF program: 46 percent of children participating in the program are Black.
Florida should use TANF funds to supplement TCA cash assistance of current recipients during the pandemic to keep families going until the economy recovers. One possibility is issuing a supplement that brings the benefits of families participating in TCA up to the amount that levels would be if cash assistance had kept pace with inflation. For a family of three, that supplement would be an additional $190.
Boosting TCA benefits is a strategy that policymakers in many states are using to combat the impact of the recession:
Florida’s TANF program already has several short-term, non-recurring benefit programs in place to help families who do not want, or qualify for, ongoing TCA but have an unexpected need that requires immediate help. Eligibility requirements for many of these programs allow families to have a higher income (200 percent of poverty) than the income limit for families participating in TCA.
Because these programs are already on the books, Florida has a ready-made structure to assist a broad-range of families affected by the pandemic by little more than clarifying existing policies. For example, under Florida’s current short-term, non-recurring benefit programs, the state could refocus TANF funds on families affected by the pandemic in the following ways:
Examples of other states where policymakers are providing short term, non-recurring help to families who do not receive TANF cash assistance:
Florida’s TANF program contains administrative barriers that make it difficult for families to qualify for assistance during the pandemic, such as a 48-month lifetime time limit that mandates termination of TCA despite a continued need for help, policies that count CARES Act payments against eligibility, and requirements that families attend school conferences, child support cooperation meetings, and other in-person meetings. These requirements are unnecessary and, especially during the pandemic, do little more than place unsafe or unsound barriers to assistance at the worst possible time.
Florida policymakers should:
Florida policymakers have been extending certification periods and suspending work requirements in recognition of social distancing challenges and lack of job opportunities in many communities during the coronavirus recession.
Policymakers in other states, too, have backed off imposing unnecessary administrative barriers in TANF due to the pandemic:
Many families with children are running out of options for how they will make ends meet during the recession. Although the TANF program should be on the front line of defense against the financial assault of COVID-19 on these families, Florida’s TANF program is not being used to its full potential. Maximizing use of TANF funds would go a long way to help them keep a roof over their heads and clothes on their children’s backs until the economy recovers.
Data on Florida’s unemployment claims is based on information from the Department of Economic Opportunity’s State and Federal Reemployment Assistance Claim Workflow for the weeks of March 15, 2020, through July 31, 2020.
 These new expenses include costs such as paper, printers and other supplies or equipment for school-age children learning remotely; a laptop, reliable internet service, and other necessities to be able to work from home; non-perishable food items; masks to travel to the grocery or pharmacy; protective equipment necessary for essential workers to remain on the job safely; and, cleaning supplies for routine disinfecting at home.
 The four purposes are: provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and, encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
 Even cash help can be considered non-assistance so long as it does not recur for more than four months.
 Thirty-one percent of Black children in Florida live in poverty, although the overall child poverty rate in the Sunshine State is only 20 percent.
 Florida requires that parents of school-age children meet with school officials each semester to discuss their child’s progress (called Learnfare).
 Under TANF’s lump sum rule, a lump sum payment is ordinarily considered an asset in the month received.