The Puget Sound region has been grappling with a homelessness crisis, and many people are trying to understand the root causes. Frequently cited factors include a lack of mental health services, the opioid crisis, and the high cost of housing.
But something that may be less understood is the way the state has tightened access to public assistance for families in poverty.
The federal program is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and in Washington it’s called Workfirst. The program dates back to the 1990s, when Congress passed welfare reform.
Families in poverty can receive cash assistance; a family of three with no other income can receive $569 per month for up to five years. But there are strict requirements spelling out what a recipient has to do to receive the benefit in terms of searching for a job or participating in an education or job training program.
And the state began making big cuts to the program around the time of the Great Recession. One policy change tightened compliance requirements, which resulted in families losing their benefits if they failed to comply in time.
According to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, only 25 percent of families with children in poverty received the public assistance benefit in 2016, compared with 50 percent in 2008. Since 2008, the state has reduced total funding (state and federal dollars) for the program by more than $223 million.
At the same time, the number of K-12 students experiencing homelessness in Washington has more than doubled in the past 10 years, according to Schoolhouse Washington. That includes families living doubled up with other families, staying in motels, vehicles, shelters or outside.
Advocates have been pushing for the state to roll back the restrictions and restore funding to the program. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers achieved part of that goal, and the changes go into effect on July 28.
One change will allow families experiencing homelessness to get their benefits extended past the standard time period if they’re complying with requirements of the program. The state had been cutting families off the program when they hit that threshold, even if they had no permanent place to live.
“It’s nonsensical sometimes when you think about it, when we’ve invested resources for a period of time to help a family become stable but then they cross an arbitrary threshold and they’re still facing a lot of barriers to stability, and then we pull out that support,” said David Hlebain of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
Hlebain's network, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, and other groups successfully lobbied lawmakers to approve some more flexibility on time limits for people who lack permanent housing.
Lawmakers also eliminated the practice of permanently disqualifying a family from receiving assistance if they had been sanctioned three times for noncompliance and failed to meet requirements in time.
One mother, Jennifer Fagan, testified to lawmakers earlier this year how stressful it is to worry about possibly getting sanctioned for noncompliance. One of her sons has an involuntary vomiting disorder. She gave emotional testimony about coaching her son to hide his illness so she wouldn't be pulled out of her program at Everett Community College and jeopardize meeting her Workfirst requirements.
“We’ve taught him how to throw up more quietly or not get caught by a teacher or even someone in the bathroom for fear they’ll tell the nurse and they’ll need to send him home,” Fagan said. “I’ve told him I can’t leave school.”
Advocates had pushed for legislators to loosen more restrictions, but they faced resistance from some fiscal conservatives.
“I don’t want to take away all requirements so you have to do nothing to receive money for five-plus years,” said Rep. Brad Klippert, a Republican from Kennewick.
Hlebain said that’s not going to happen because the program is not set up that way. People have individual responsibility plans they have to follow to get the benefits. His group and others say that now that the state has pulled out of the Great Recession, it's time to restore the program and roll back restrictions.
“We want to continue this work of reorienting sanction policies so families really get the support they need to get back on track, instead of being punished and further destabilized when they make a misstep,” Hlebain said.