#20 States Hoard Federal Assistance Funding Amidst Record Poverty Levels

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Published: Last Updated on

Despite the national poverty rate making its largest upward jump in recorded history, Hannah Dreyfus reported for ProPublica that states had stockpiled $5.2 billion in undistributed funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). Her report was part of a collection of articles published by ProPublica in 2021 that detailed the regulations allowing widespread denial of assistance and explored their impact on those in need.

Hannah Dreyfus reported in a December 2021 article that the number of approved applications for access to TANF funding has been cut in half since 2010 as guidelines to qualify become increasingly exclusionary, while reserved TANF funds have more than doubled in the same time period.

Dreyfus profiled Bonney Bridgforth, a single mother of four children, who was forced to work at just a dollar above Maine’s minimum wage while pursuing her associate’s degree to meet the “employment” qualification for TANF funding. However, Bridgforth was notified that her family no longer met the “deprivation” standard to receive aid after her estranged husband was released from prison. Dreyfus observed that “the same year Bridgforth was kicked off TANF, Maine was sitting on $111 million in unspent welfare dollars.”

Bridgforth’s story illustrates a larger problem stemming from the fallout of a 1996 welfare reform law passed by the Clinton administration allowing states to withhold assistance. The 1996 law awards states an up-front block grant each year, intending for the money to go toward helping the poor meet their basic needs. However, as Eli Hager explained in a December 2021 ProPublica article, states are allowed to spend this money in any manner they see fit, as long as it meets one of four very broad criteria.

Hager spoke with Arianna Bermudez about her experience with the state of Arizona, which “spent some of the same welfare funding that it could have used to provide her with direct assistance to instead help pay for a child protective service investigation into her emotional state.” In a September 2021 article for ProPublica, Hager revealed that state investigators forced mothers to disclose information about their sexual histories as a condition of receiving aid.

Some state officials argue that the decline in applications for TANF money means states are moving families out of poverty. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has overwhelming data to suggest the opposite. Adita Shrivastava and Gina Thompson’s February 2022 study shows that the TANF-to-poverty ratio hit an all-time low in the program’s twenty-five-year history amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The corporate media have helped states maintain their billions in undistributed welfare funds as a well-kept secret. Outside of a single January 2022 NPR story and coverage by independent journals such as Consortium News, which ran Dreyfus’s original article, there has been no real coverage of the 1996 law allowing states to collect federal welfare funding without using it for its essential purpose. PBS NewsHour has covered Hager’s reporting about TANF’s many failures as a safety net for poor women.

Eli Hager, “A Mother Needed Welfare. Instead, the State Used Welfare Funds to Take Her Son,” ProPublica, December 23, 2021.

Eli Hager, “These Single Moms Are Forced to Choose: Reveal Their Sexual Histories or Forfeit Welfare,” ProPublica, September 17, 2021.

Hannah Dreyfus, “States Are Hoarding $5.2 Billion in Welfare Funds Even as the Need for Aid Grows,” ProPublica, December 29, 2021.

Adita Shrivastava and Gina Azito Thompson, “Policy Brief: Cash Assistance Should Reach Millions More Families to Lessen Hardship,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 18, 2022.

Student Researcher: Zach McNanna (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)