The Sunshine State has been shortchanging Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program that provides short-term cash assistance to low-income families to help them get back on their feet, for decades. TANF is supposed to assist households by helping them become self-supporting without having to put their children in foster care. Often, these families are escaping domestic violence, just lost a job or recently suffered a medical crisis.
Although one-third of states, including Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas, recently raised TANF benefit levels, Florida has not increased TANF in more than 25 years.
But TANF benefits are woefully inadequate to take care of a child’s basic needs, like housing, clothes and school supplies. On average, families in Florida only receive about $235 per month. At most, the maximum monthly TANF benefit for a family of three in the Sunshine State is $303. According to newly released U.S. Census data, benefit levels are so low that the median monthly income of Floridians ($4,622) is now almost $1,000 more than the maximum cash assistance that a family of three receives in TANF for the entire year ($3,636).
While the median income of Floridians is up, the amount that families receive each month in TANF is down. Although one-third of states, including Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas, recently raised TANF benefit levels, Florida has not increased TANF in more than 25 years. Florida’s stagnant TANF benefit levels are less than a paltry one-fifth of the federal poverty line.
The meager assistance that Florida provides to TANF participants is not enough to pay rent. The median rent that Floridians now pay, $1,182, is almost four times the maximum amount of total TANF cash assistance, $303, that a three-person family receives in Florida. And forget the notion that most TANF recipients have subsidized housing. The truth is that very few have public housing to keep a roof over their heads.
A family’s TANF benefit isn’t even enough to buy school supplies for one child. The Florida Retail Federation reports that the average cost of back-to-school supplies for children this year was almost $700, which is roughly three times the average amount of a family’s monthly TANF assistance in Florida.
TANF is also one way to improve long term outcomes for Black job seekers (who face unemployment rates twice that of white residents) and their families, if the Legislature would adequately fund assistance payments. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 53 percent of Black people live in states — Florida is among them — with TANF benefits that are at or below 20 percent of the poverty line.
Florida has two choices when it comes to TANF: continue to ignore families who are struggling or do the right thing by funding TANF at a benefit level that deals a blow to inequity and poverty. Let’s hope the 2020 Florida Legislature bucks the neglectful trend of the past 25 years and makes the right choice.