9 Ways to Fix Florida’s TANF Program to Help Children Who Need It Most

This blog was updated as of the date of publication. It was originally published on Sept. 11, 2023.

Introduction: Florida’s Broken TANF Program

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) provides cash assistance on a temporary basis to families with children at a time when the family is most in need. Oftentimes, Florida families turn to TANF after parents or caregivers experience a medical crisis, divorce, or other loss of income. The program is supposed to help struggling families provide essentials for their children, like diapers, soap, school supplies, and clothes, without having to resort to foster care, an alternative that costs the state much more than TANF and breaks up families just because of their financial situation.

TANF participants in Florida are from all races and ethnicities: 48.2 percent are Black, 19.1 percent are Hispanic, 30.6 percent are white, and 2.1 percent are from other races. The vast majority of TANF participants (78.9 percent) are children, primarily because the child lives with a non-parent caregiver or the child’s parents receive Supplemental Security Income, are ineligible immigrants, or have been sanctioned or convicted of drug trafficking. The average size of a family participating in TANF in Florida is three people.

Although it holds great promise for lifting families out of poverty, the TANF program in Florida is not living up to its potential. Instead, lawmakers have devised a program based on false racist narratives about TANF participants that keep benefit levels appallingly low and eligibility policies unnecessarily stringent. Florida has shifted TANF funds that used to go to children in TANF families to pay for other programs even though additional income improves a child’s chance at the future. In addition, Florida’s TANF program contains policies intentionally designed to keep out struggling families —  this includes “family cap,” along with more restrictive sanctions and time limits than mandated by federal law.

Florida’s debilitated TANF program is not beyond repair. Because states have flexibility over many of the policies that govern program eligibility and are allowed to set their own TANF payment standard, Florida could easily raise benefits and ease unnecessary restrictions. The Florida Legislature could — and should — fix inadequacies in the TANF program that keep it from achieving its purpose.

Steps That Lawmakers Can Take to Improve TANF 

1. Increase TANF payment levels. 

TANF payment levels in Florida have not been updated in three decades and are too low to meet the most basic needs of children in the family. TANF benefits leave Floridians at a tiny fraction of the federal poverty level, even for those who receive the maximum allotment. The most benefits that a family of three can receive is $303, which is 85 percent below the federal poverty level.

Increasing TANF payments would also help support families of workers in low wage jobs. Because of Florida’s low payment standard, the most an applicant in a family of three can make and still qualify for TANF is roughly $393 a month — which is approximately 19 percent of the poverty level — one of the lowest levels in the country.  As a result, few families with low wage jobs are able to qualify for TANF even though they are struggling to make ends meet.  

2. Help reach more families in poverty with TANF policy and payment adjustments.

TANF reaches far fewer Florida families in need than in the past. Since TANF was first enacted in 1996, the number of families in Florida who participate in the program has fallen precipitously, from 213,564 to 37,000 today.  In 1995-96, more than half (55 percent) of families living in poverty in Florida participated in TANF, compared to about 1 in 10 families (13 percent) today.

3. Remove unnecessary stumbling blocks to establishing TANF eligibility.

Although the need is great, establishing eligibility for TANF can be an uphill battle. In 2022, the Florida Department of Children and Families denied about 82 percent of TANF applications. This can be attributed, in part, to Florida’s outdated income eligibility limits, which make it hard to qualify financially. There are also non-financial reasons such as sanctions and time limits, and procedural causes, such as not being able to locate verification documents to submit to DCF fast enough.

4. Spend more TANF funds on basic assistance.

Florida spends too little of its TANF funds on benefit payments. Florida only spends about 19 percent of its TANF money on basic assistance (e.g., actual cash assistance), which puts Florida below the national average.

5. Increase the TANF time limit.

Florida’s time limit for TANF participation is shorter than it has to be, which causes many families who are still in need to lose assistance too soon. Florida is one of only 13 states in the country that have a shorter lifetime time limit for participating in the program (48 months in Florida) than the maximum allowed by federal law (five years).

6. Ensure TANF offers meaningful education and training.

TANF work requirements have not lived up to their promise of helping Floridians find jobs with a path out of poverty. Although TANF’s Employment and Training (E&T) program has an education and training component, Florida’s TANF rules governing E&T often make it difficult for recipients to pursue activities that lead to real jobs. Only about 7 percent of adult TANF recipients in Florida have more than a high school education, and more than 21 percent  have no formal education at all. This makes it harder for many participants to find jobs — and underscores the importance of having access to meaningful E&T. Yet, the majority of TANF recipients subject to work requirements do not receive any employment-related education from the TANF program.

7. Repeal the family cap.

Florida is one of only 6 states that deny parents some or all TANF benefits for additional children born while they are participating in TANF (called “family cap”). As a result, many babies born into families with low income in Florida go without any help from TANF to meet their basic needs.

8. Revise work penalties.

People participating in Florida’s TANF program — and their children — face harsh penalties if a parent does not comply with work program requirements, even though those requirements are largely ineffective at improving the long term economic stability of many families and many participants face significant barriers to work. The first time that the state decides that a parent has not cooperated, everyone in the family, including the children, lose their assistance for 10 days or until the parent is deemed to have complied, whichever is later. If the parent is never able to demonstrate compliance, the entire family loses their assistance forever. Since states are allowed to set their own sanction policies, Florida should revise these penalties to stop punishing children.

9. Repeal the lifetime ban on eligibility that bars Floridians with past convictions for drug trafficking from participating in TANF.

Not only does this ban contribute to recidivism and cost the state money in the long run, it denies basic food assistance to people who have served their time and are struggling to get back on their feet.

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