Two bills that would restore federal funding to Arizona’s poorest families for child-care help, job training and direct cash assistance failed to get legislative hearings, their sponsors say.
The only hope for the bills now would be during state budget negotiations this spring, the sponsors say, but they aren’t counting on it.
The legislation — one bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Rios, a Phoenix Democrat, and the other by Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, a Tucson Democrat — would make it easier for more families to tap into TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and stay on it for up to five years.
This is the last week of the legislative session for each chamber to hear bills in their own committees, and neither TANF bill is scheduled.
The stagnation of the bills is especially frustrating for TANF proponents because the state’s budget is expected to have a surplus of $1.1 billion this year. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed putting $542 million of that into the state’s “rainy-day” fund.
The state reduced the amount of time families can receive TANF assistance back in 2015 when it was facing a $1 billion deficit, with several Republican lawmakers calling the change necessary to protect taxpayer interests.
Hannley sponsored House Bill 2607 this year and wanted to see the time families can receive TANF restored to five years, the level it was in 2010, instead of the current two-year maximum. Federal guidelines allow five years.
Rios, who sponsored Senate Bill 1501, said Arizona continues to be stingy and entrenched in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality” instead of trying to change its high poverty rate by better helping its citizens.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report last June found Arizona failing to keep up with national trends in several related categories, most notably child poverty, which has fallen nationwide for four consecutive years and now averages about 19 percent.
In Arizona, about 24 percent of children live in poverty, and 23 percent live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Nationally, Arizona places among the 10 states with the highest poverty rates on both measures.
TANF is intended to address three objectives in order to help families rise out of poverty, including child-care help, job training and direct cash assistance. In order to qualify, an Arizona family of three cannot earn more than $1,732 per month or 100 percent of the federal poverty level as of October 2018.
Arizona became the state with the strictest limits on TANF nationwide when it cut assistance to 12 months. Ducey extended the time back to 24 months a year later, with participants needing to maintain employment and have their school-age children attend school at least 90 percent of the time.
Republican lawmakers have said such requirements were needed in order to motivate people to find jobs and not rely on government assistance.
But Rios said those restrictions can prevent more families from getting self-sufficient, since it can take time to do job training or deal with mental-health issues or family violence, for example.
“There’s no need to create more obstacles for people who are already struggling,” she said.
No one with the Governor’s Office will comment on pending legislation, said Patrick Ptak, director of communications for Ducey’s office.
Sen. David Gowan, a Republican from Sierra Vista, did not respond to an interview request. He was one of the committee chairs who did not give the bills a hearing.
Since the state started making cuts to TANF in fiscal year 2009, the average number of people receiving help dropped from 83,969 per month to 16,195 per month in fiscal year 2018.
The average monthly TANF payment dropped from $118 per month to $94 per month, according to recent reports by the state’s Department of Economic Security.
Out of the $220.6 million in federal TANF funds Arizona received for the 2019 fiscal year, the state’s Department of Child Safety got $157.3 million, or 72 percent. The majority of those funds go toward foster care, adoptions and emergency and residential placements, DCS data shows.
“I think the issue is that there’s still so much misunderstanding of TANF and of cash assistance,” said Dana Naimark, CEO of Arizona’s Children’s Action Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for legislation and changes to help families. “We’re doing so little to help poor, single moms move up the economic ladder. The stereotypes get in the way.”
Helping get more people out of poverty and into higher-paying jobs would help reduce the need for TANF, said Angie Rodgers, CEO of Arizona Association of Food Banks.
“These are supposed to be rainy day funds?” she said.
“Well, it’s been raining on (Arizona’s) low-income people for a number of years now.”