The Tennessee government is sitting on a large sum of money given to the state by the federal government meant to help poor, working class households.
A report has recently been released from The Beacon Center of Tennessee discussing the issue of poverty in the Volunteer State. The report is called “Poverty to Prosperity: Reforming Tennessee’s Public Assistance Programs.”
It also discusses reforming public assistance programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families also known as Families First.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is time limited and “assists families with children when the parents or other responsible relatives cannot provide for the family's basic needs.”
Participating families have a lifetime limit of 60 months. Additionally, unless they are exempted, participants are “required to satisfy a 30-hour work requirement, cooperate with child support requirements, and ensure their children receive immunization shots and health checks and attend school,” according to the report.
It is also required that the money be spent to fulfill at least one of four pillars: assisting needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes or the homes of relatives; reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
Every year the government gives each state a certain amount of money to fund the TANF program. Tennessee receives $190.9 million each year to fund the program and any money not used is placed in a reserve fund.
In the 2019 fiscal year, Tennessee spent a mere $71.1 million dollars and according to the “Poverty to Prosperity” report, as of September the reserve fund had $732.7 million in it.
In contact with The Daily Beacon in regards to this issue, the Press Secretary to Governor Lee, Laine Arnold, explained why this surplus exists.
“Federally funded programs like TANF experience fluctuations in case load based on the economy and we have seen a 60% reduction in need over the last 5 years thanks to a strong economy. A surplus in funding provides a cushion for potential economic downturn and the higher caseload that could ensue, and also affords the opportunity to fund additional programming that meets federal requirements,” Arnold said.
Governor Lee himself also discussed the reasoning.
“It'll be put to use when the needs are there for those who qualify,” Lee said.
The governor’s office makes their position clear: the amount of families in need of the funds has decreased drastically, resulting in a surplus. However, data compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says differently.
According to the center, in 2017, for every 100 poor families with children in Tennessee, only 23 received TANF cash assistance, down from 43 in 2001. It is unclear if this is because the program itself is so particular in regards to which families are eligible to receive assistance. However, if that were true and the qualifications stayed the same, one might wonder why accessibility to these funds has dropped so dramatically.
Additionally, according to the Beacon Center’s report, 75 of Tennessee’s 95 counties have a poverty rate above the national average.
Many question whether or not enough is being done to help needy families. While it is clear that there is an abundance of poverty-stricken individuals in Tennessee, it is unclear if there is anything that can be done to help them with TANF funds.