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Legislature fails to spare children facing hardship

Commentary
August 26, 2020By Janet Bauer

The recently-concluded special session of the Oregon legislature was not so special for families suffering extreme hardship. It was, in fact, another chapter in the legislature’s long-running indifference toward families relying on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The session produced $14 million in cuts to TANF, Oregon’s principal support for children whose families have fallen on hard times. Temporary cash assistance seeks to prevent homelessness, keep families together, and avoid children ending up in foster care. These cuts, sadly, roll back a recent, rare new investment in the well-being of TANF families.

Over more than two decades, Oregon lawmakers have allowed TANF cash assistance to wither. Year after year, the maximum monthly dollar amount that families can receive has remained virtually unchanged. That maximum amount is $506 per month for a family of three. Because of the rising cost of living, the stagnant cash grant covers less and less of a family’s basic needs each year. It is now nowhere near enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in any county in Oregon, much less cover other necessities.

TANF families are members of our communities. They may be fleeing domestic violence, they may be confronting the departure of a primary wage earner, or they may be led by a parent experiencing a debilitating injury or health condition. Like parents everywhere, adults receiving TANF want the best for their children. Despite great obstacles, they care for and nurture their kids — Oregon’s children. In all, 37,000 children in our state rely on TANF to make it through a difficult period and, hopefully, toward a better future.

Already struggling prior to the pandemic to meet their basic needs, the current crisis has put even more pressure on TANF families. Most receive no housing subsidies, so often families must double up with another family — an arrangement made more challenging by the pandemic. And because food prices have spiked since March, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits families receive are running out earlier each month.

The withering of TANF cash assistance worsens racial disparities in Oregon. Racist structural barriers to education, employment, health care, and other opportunities mean Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander families in our state are more likely to rely on TANF.

In 2019, the Oregon legislature charted a new path and committed to investing in TANF families. For years, Oregon had been diverting some of Oregon’s federal TANF dollars to other purposes. As a step in reversing the disinvestment, the legislature repatriated some of the federal TANF funds by launching three TANF pilot projects in housing, mental and behavioral health, and employment services for TANF families.

But this step forward came to an end in early August. To balance the state budget, lawmakers wiped out almost the entire new investment in TANF families.

The lost dollars are significant for a family struggling to make ends meet, whether provided through a housing pilot or some other means. To illustrate, $14 million could provide an extra $167 to every TANF household in the state for four months – enough to put food on the table after the family’s SNAP food allotment runs out before month’s end.

Despite the state’s difficult fiscal picture, lawmakers had other options. They could have rejected new tax cuts for the rich and corporations totaling $225 million. Instead, the legislature chose to further enrich the rich while cutting supports to children who have the least resources.

This was wrong and shortsighted. The legislature should meet again in a special session as soon as possible to reverse that misguided choice.