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Over $5 billion in welfare spends were left unspent by states

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to spend these next few minutes trying to square two facts - one, that poverty in the U.S. has gotten worse recently. According to 2020 data from the Census Bureau, a higher percentage of both children and adults are living in poverty than the year before. At the same time - and this is the other point - states are holding on to more federal money set aside for helping these people. More than $5 billion in state welfare funds remains unspent. That is according to a new report in ProPublica which found Hawaii, Tennessee and Maine hoarding the most cash per person. Hannah Dreyfus helped break the story.

Hey there, Hannah.

HANNAH DREYFUS: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: So this figure, $5.2 billion - a lot of money - this is unspent funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Just explain briefly how it is supposed to work.

DREYFUS: So the TANF program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, is a block grant distributed per state by the federal government annually. And states were given discretion to use the funds widely, as long as they were addressing the basic needs of those living at or below the poverty line, meaning that they could afford gas, electricity, food, diapers. And that was sort of the initial intention behind the TANF program.

KELLY: OK. Why is there so much - billions of dollars not being spent?

DREYFUS: The answer is that less and less people are applying to the TANF program, and that is because people who are living in poverty are frequently making the decision that it's not worth continuing to apply to the TANF program because of the hoops they have to jump through to get on the TANF program and then stay on the TANF program.

KELLY: Well - so give me an example to help me understand this. These are people who have need. The states have the money. What are the hoops that they are being made to jump through?

DREYFUS: In Maine, I spoke to a woman, Bonnie Bridgforth, who found herself in a position of extreme need several years ago. Her husband had been sentenced to jail time. She was pregnant and had four small children at home. And she, all of a sudden, was thrust into the position of being a primary caretaker. When she went to Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, the caseworker she met with looked at her and told her that in order to receive TANF, she had to be working a certain number of hours per week to even qualify for the program. TANF is frequently dependent on strict working requirements that make it difficult for people who are in need to even qualify for the program because they already need to be working a certain amount of hours.

KELLY: I was struck as well - setting aside the work requirement, which sounds like it's a big piece of this - but just by how strict some of the requirements for these state programs are. You write, in Texas, a family with two children qualifies only if they have a monthly income less than $188 and a thousand dollars in total assets. That seems very low.

DREYFUS: Absolutely. It's incredibly low. And when they look at total assets, they're considering everything - you know, any vehicle that the family uses. Someone has to be at such an extreme state of poverty that they need to not only be making extremely little money, but then they need to prove that they're working a number of hours while making that very little bit of money. In several states, we're seeing rejection rates of people who do manage to apply to TANF at 90% or more.

KELLY: As you called around to state officials, did you hear recognition that this situation is not ideal and that there may be some effort underway to improve it?

DREYFUS: Yes. There was sort of a scrambling to respond to my questions. For example, in Oklahoma, they actually did not get back to me with comment until after the story had run and sort of rushed to explain how they are working on programs that will use that money effectively. The interesting thing, though, is that even though they're implementing different programs to try and spend down this money, the amount that they're actually giving to families is not going to increase. And that's actually a very small amount. For a family of three in Oklahoma, you're going to get less than $300 a month.

KELLY: Hannah Dreyfus, Abrams reporting fellow at ProPublica.

Thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

DREYFUS: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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