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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The recent federal stimulus package offers states significant financial support for increased investments in economic security for vulnerable families. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contains provisions for an emergency contingency fund within the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is the federal program that supports state welfare programs, which in Washington is known as WorkFirst.

The new federal provisions:
- provide significant, unanticipated money to the state for TANF
- require that states experience increases in TANF caseloads and expenditures to access federal money

While the TANF block grant generally provides states with a fixed amount of money each year, the new emergency fund offers additional money to states that corresponds to increased TANF costs during the recession. The new provisions in the federal legislation are intended to help states respond to the rising need for government assistance during an economic crisis. They provide a very attractive 80 percent reimbursement for the increased costs associated with rising caseloads and innovative programs designed to assist families. (This means that for every 20 cents the state spends, it gets back 80 cents in federal assistance. In dollar terms, for every one dollar spent, Washington would receive four dollars back.)

Washington State stands to gain unanticipated extra federal dollars under this provision, but to take advantage of these funds lawmakers must resist the temptation to cut caseloads or benefits in order to deal with budget shortfalls. A state can only receive the new emergency funds for increased assistance costs if it has increased caseloads and expenditures. In other words, the program must be serving more people now than it did in 2007 - when the average monthly caseload was over 51,000 - and it is projected to do so. The Caseload Forecast Council predicted last November that the state will have close to 59,000 TANF recipients in 2011, a 14.5 percent increase over the June 2008 projection. (See graph) It is highly likely, given the escalating crisis in the economy and unemployment, that these regular assistance caseload numbers will be much higher.

Increased caseloads in Washington State will come primarily from the rising need of vulnerable families during the current economic recession. But additional caseload growth in Washington will also come from the Career Services program that the state recently created to support families trying to work their way off assistance. The state has been planning to expand this program later this year to include working families receiving food stamps. Because expenditures on this program qualify for the 80 percent reimbursement, Washington State is well-positioned to pull in extra federal dollars through the emergency fund for previously scheduled expenditures.

As state lawmakers move forward in the budget-writing process, it is important to consider that reductions in TANF benefits for basic assistance or steps taken to reduce caseloads will mean Washington will lose out on 80 cents in additional federal funding for every dollar that gets cut. Not only would this do harm to our collective effort to provide economic security to everyone in the state, it would also run counter to the purpose of the federal stimulus bill which seeks to increase spending in the overall economy. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, every federal dollar pulled into the state is expected to generate $1.38 in economic activity.

For more information on the TANF provisions in the federal stimulus bill, see this paper from the CBPP. Many thanks to Liz Schott at CBPP for her assistance with this post.

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