Washington state provides basic cash assistance, child care assistance, and employment support to help struggling families with children in particularly hard economic times. But some of the technical requirements of accessing this aid, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), actually keep many parents from getting vocational education that can help them achieve economic stability.
TANF recipients must do a certain number of “work activity” hours in order to receive benefits. “Work activity” can include some vocational educational opportunities, employment, training and more. Right now, TANF recipients can only count 12 months of vocational training as work activity — but most technical and associate programs take more than a year to complete.
One year of vocational education is simply not enough time for a parent to succeed in finishing a certificate or degree connected to living-wage employment. This means parents must choose between finishing their education and staying on TANF to afford food and childcare.
“As a young woman that never imagined I was ever deserving of an education,” testified Kristina, a mother of three from Everett, WA, “I realized how badly I wanted it when I knew it was all about to be taken away from me. I couldn’t grasp the benefit of having to stop my two-year degree program, and why the TANF program did not support my efforts to reach self-sufficiency so that I would no longer need to rely on government aid.
“It took me five months after I got kicked off the program to find some employment. I’ve had to cut back on the number of classes I can take, lengthening the amount of time I will need to be in school to complete my two-year degree. While I am still doing well in school, I don’t have the time to give school the focus I did when I was on TANF; the 4.0 GPA I maintained while I was on TANF has dropped. Most challenging, this juggling of so many responsibilities limits the available time I have to spend with my three children, which is critical for their success and development.”
At best, families like Kristina’s are put under tremendous stress, damaging their well-being and undermining their success. At worst, this policy helps keep them stuck in poverty, thwarting their best efforts toward long-term stability.
The Washington State Legislature is considering legislation to permit 24 months of vocational education and training to count as work activities. Please let your House Reps and State Senators know that you think SB 5437/HB 1566 is a good way to support families and make our community stronger. You can register your comment to your elected officials via the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s website portal: