December 11, 2019

Holiday Season Especially Trying Time Under Florida’s Low TANF Levels

The Sunshine State has neglected Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for so long that toys, holiday meals and other items typically associated with the season are often pie-in-the-sky ideas for thousands of low-income children whose parents rely on TANF to make ends meet.

The TANF program provides temporary cash assistance to families with very low income to help parents take care of their children during an upheaval in their lives. In Florida,almost 95 percent of all TANF recipients are children. Of the more than 58,000 children in TANF in Florida, most are very young: almost 70 percent are still in grammar school. A family might turn to TANF after experiencing hard times due to domestic violence, loss of a job or a health crisis. By design, the TANF program is supposed to provide those families a minimum level of temporary support to meet their children’s basic needs until they get back on their feet.The problem is that every state has discretion on how high to set TANF benefit levels. In Florida, the State Legislature has set the maximum TANF benefit fora family of three at an inadequate $303 a month, which is only about 17 percent of the poverty level and 27 percent of fair market rent.  

Although one-third of states have increased TANF benefits in recent years, Florida has not provided any increase to cash assistance since 1992. The last time that Florida raised TANF assistance, Don Shula was coaching the Miami Dolphins.

Because of the state’s failure to adequately fund safety net programs, even if a family in the Sunshine State receives both Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)and TANF, those benefits combined keep the family under 47 percent of the poverty level. Without resources to buy things like diapers and toothpaste, orpay rent and utilities, celebrating the holiday season — and incurring the corresponding expenses — can prove extremely difficult for families with a low household income.  

Most Floridians would find it next to impossible to make a happy holiday for their children on a TANF grant. According to the Florida Retail Association, most families plan to spend $685.55 on gifts alone this year.  For the average family participating in TANF, that would be almost three times their monthly grant.But even a Barbie doll and Lego set, the two most popular holiday gifts for kids, would set parents back as much as $60 or more,which is roughly one-quarter of the average TANF family’s entire assistance for the whole month.

The holiday season can be a particularly difficult time for families on a very tight budget. On average, the price tag for a holiday meal is about $5 per person, roughly 70 percent more per meal than what SNAP budgets, regardless of the occasion. And SNAP does not cover all of a family’s food needs for a month. Although the SNAP program helps a family maintain a very low-cost, nutritionally adequate diet, afamily is expected to contribute 30 percent of their own income for food, afeat that can overwhelm a TANF participant’s most meticulous spending plan,especially during the holidays.

Florida’s parsimony in the TANF program also has a racial overlay to it. In Florida, 32 percent of Black children live in households with income below the poverty level, compared to 12 percent of white children. As might be expected with such income inequality, Black children have higher TANF participation rates. The cash assistance program, if done right, could help level the playing field for children of color. But Florida’s TANF program falls short of meeting a child’s most basic needs, muchless keeping up with inflation, holiday season or not.

Regardless of the season, lawmakers in Florida should raise TANF benefits to a level that meets the basic needs of children. Children in Florida deserve a TANF program that is funded to pay for a roof over their heads, electricity and running water, and clothes and supplies for school, at least until their families get back on their feet.

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