Below the Poverty Line

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

This year, multiple legislators have introduced bills designed to increase TANF benefits; and for good reason.  TANF, which provides cash-assistance for low-income families with children, has weakened considerably as a safety net.  Since 1996, the value of program benefits has declined by 28% in Virginia.  Current benefit levels can leave family incomes well below the federal poverty line.  For example, the federal poverty level for a family of three is about $1,674 per month while the maximum monthly benefit available through TANF is $399; merely 24 percent of the federal poverty level.

TANF benefits cover only a fraction of a family’s housing costs.  The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Commonwealth is $1,097.  The maximum monthly benefit available through TANF for a family of three covers only 36 percent of that amount.  And contrary to popular belief, most TANF families do not receive housing subsidies – in fact, only one in four families with children eligible for federal housing assistance receive it.

SNAP benefits, which can be used to purchase food, help TANF families fill the resource gap; but a substantial shortfall remains.  In Virginia, families who receive both SNAP and TANF – and who have no other income – fall below 60 percent of the federal poverty line.

While some program participants can combine TANF benefits with earned income to help meet their basic needs, others cannot.  Many families include parents who have significant disabilities or other barriers to work or cannot find jobs in a labor market that remains weak.

After years of erosion, it’s time to restore the value of TANF benefits, even if that requires several incremental increases over a period of years.  Moreover, it’s time to establish mechanisms to prevent benefits from eroding in the future.  Taking these steps will help low-income families with children meet their basic needs and repair Virginia’s cash assistance safety net.

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