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:
- Through ongoing benefits to meet basic needs, such as monthly cash assistance (called Temporary Cash Assistance or TCA in Florida ). To receive ongoing assistance, a three-person family’s countable income in Florida cannot exceed $303. Further, a family’s countable assets, like money in the bank, cannot total more than $2,000.
- Through short-term, non-recurring benefit programs to meet the needs of families who do not qualify for, or need, ongoing TCA. For many of these programs, families in Florida can have income up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), which allows the state to use TANF funds to address the needs of more families than it serves in TCA.
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.
1. Florida policymakers should provide a temporary benefits supplement to current TCA recipients in Florida to help them meet extra needs during the pandemic.
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:
- Alabama provided families receiving TANF cash assistance with an "Emergency Health Preparedness Allowance" of an additional $400 per family a month for three months.
- Both Illinois and West Virginia provided a one-time payment of $500 to TANF families.
- North Carolina issued one-time payments for each eligible child in families receiving monthly TANF cash assistance.
- In April and May, Oklahoma issued an additional $200 for each month to TANF families to help offset additional expenses, such as the cost of cleaning supplies and internet costs to participate in TANF activities.
- Rhode Island provided an additional one-time payment equal to one full month's worth of benefits to TANF cash assistance families. For a family of 3, this was an extra $554.
2. Florida policymakers should clarify how TANF funds can be used to provide short-term, non-recurring pandemic help to families who are not receiving TCA.
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:
- By purchasing equipment, like headphones or laptops, to enable parents in families to work remotely so that they can get or keep jobs during the pandemic under the Diversion Program to Strength Florida’s Families. In this program, families are allowed to have income up to 200 percent of the FPL.
- By making rent, mortgage, or utility payments to prevent families who have lost income during COVID-19 from becoming homeless under the Homeless Prevention Program. In this program, families are allowed to have income up to 200 percent of the FPL.
Examples of other states where policymakers are providing short term, non-recurring help to families who do not receive TANF cash assistance:
- Pennsylvania provided a one-time grant equal to two months of TANF benefits to non-TANF families with income at or below 150 percent of poverty. To qualify, families must have at least one person in the household who was employed as of March 11, 2020 and have lost their job or experienced a reduction in wages of at least 50 percent for two weeks due to the public health crisis. Recipients will be expected to repay it if they get Unemployment Compensation.
- Tennessee initiated a new Emergency Cash Assistance (ECA) that provides two monthly cash payments to families who have lost either a job or at least 50% of their earned income due to the COVID-19 emergency since March 11, 2020.
- West Virginia established the Pandemic Diversionary Cash Assistance program for families who do not receive TANF cash assistance but who are either out of work or have low income and expect to be working after the crisis is over.
3. Florida policymakers should suspend unnecessary administrative red tape that makes it difficult for families to participate in TANF during the pandemic.
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:
- Suspend all TANF requirements that mandate in-person interaction, such as compulsory meetings with school staff and the child support office. Until Florida develops across-the-board capacity to offer telephone or video appointments for TANF-related meetings, we urge the state to impose a moratorium on such activities in order to comply with federal social distancing guidelines as well as to protect families, staff, and the communities in which they live from spreading the coronavirus.
- Clarify good cause for COVID-19-related non-cooperation with child support. The TANF program requires that caregivers cooperate with child support enforcement as a condition of receiving assistance unless good cause exists. The State of Florida should clarify the definition of good cause to specify that noncooperation due to the impact of coronavirus constitutes good cause.
- Suspend time limits. Ordinarily, adults in Florida can only receive TANF assistance for 48 cumulative months in their lifetime, unless they meet the criteria for an exemption due to barriers or limited employment prospects. This is more stringent than federal law, which allows up to 60 months of assistance (and hardship extensions beyond that for up to 20 percent of the caseload). Florida should suspend TANF time limits and not count receipt of TANF during the pandemic against a family’s 48-month limit.
- Continue to extend recertification deadlines and interview suspension.
- Exclude Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) under the CARES Act when determining whether an applicant meets TANF income and asset eligibility criteria, including retroactive lump sum PUC payments.
- Inform applicants about stimulus payments, including what they must do to get payment. An estimated 437,400 persons in Florida, including 184,000 children under the age of 17, have missed out on the stimulus payment.
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:
- Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington State have all either stopped imposing time limits altogether, are granting extensions to time limits, or are not cutting off families who reach their time limit.
- North Carolina and California are easing the impact of unemployment insurance (UI) received under the CARES Act by disregarding some or all of CARES Act UI when determining a family’s income for cash assistance purposes.
- Oregon has increased the asset limit from $2500 to $10,000 for new cash assistance applicants.
- California, Tennessee and Texas have suspended all interview requirements for accessing benefits.
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.