13 September 2010

TANF Sanctions Threaten America's Neediest

There's an epidemic in America's most vulnerable communities -- and federal policies are directly responsible for its spread. Widespread and erroneous financial sanctions are leaving TANF recipients with less money in their pockets, if not shut out of the system entirely.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is designed to offer America's neediest families crucial financial support during times of crisis. But according to a recent report from Ms. Foundation grantee Legal Momentum, financial sanctions -- commonly and erroneously imposed for minor violations -- have resulted in hundreds of thousands of families being denied full access to the benefits they've been awarded.

The report -- "The Sanction Epidemic in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program" [pdf] -- found that in 2008, 85,000 families a month received reduced benefits (or "partial" sanctions), with an average reduction of $146, about 38% of the $383 average monthly TANF grant. According to Legal Momentum, these sanctions "often come as a result of minor violations" --including something as simple as "failing to file a document."
...The report describes the case of “a 43-year-old black woman, living in an emergency shelter and suffering from both shingles and AIDS, who was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment at the Department of Labor. According to her, when she called the Department of Labor to say she would be 20 minutes late for her appointment she was told it was too late and was sanctioned.
As a result of these sanctions, desperate families find themselves struggling even harder to survive; as Legal Momentum points out, "sanctioned TANF families often report maternal or child hunger, eviction or homelessness, and lack of medical care."

But there's more: in addition to these partial sanctions, states are also within their rights -- and encouraged by federal policies -- to visit "full" sanctions on beneficiaries who commit minor infractions. Full sanctions deprive TANF families of 100% of their benefits, leaving these families without resources to support themselves. This in turn has lead to a significant reduction in the overall number of families receiving aid of any kind: in 1995, 84% of eligible families participated in the program; in 2005, that number had dropped to just 40%.

You'd think that this discrepancy between need and actual awards would raise a red flag among the powers that be. But with state budgets under extreme stress, it seems that government officials are turning a blind eye to the impact of these inflexible policies on families in their states if it means reducing the "welfare rolls."

As Congress looks at extending TANF subsidies through September of 2011, Legal Momentum is urging policymakers to correct the application of sanctions, to ensure that they become both "fair and rare." Families in crisis deserve to be treated with as much humanity as anyone else; it's Congress's job to make sure that TANF starts to treat its beneficiaries not as numbers, but as actual human beings.

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