The Grand Canyon Isn’t the Biggest Chasm in Arizona: Proposed Budget Widens Gap to Economic Security for Low-Income Families
UPDATE: The Arizona legislature passed a budget for FY2016 in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 7. According to the Associated Press, the budget deal included the reduction of the lifetime limit for receipt of TANF to 12 months from 24 months, as well as the elimination of all state funding for two counties’ community college systems (Pima and Maricopa), with the funding for Pinal County’s community colleges spared from cuts.
State lawmakers in Arizona are working furiously on a FY16 budget deal designed to reduce the state’s deficit. Unfortunately, Governor Doug Ducey and the Republican leadership in Arizona’s House and Senate plan to achieve these cuts by slashing funds for programs that support low-income children, families, and individuals in seeking economic security. According to reports, the proposal includes draconian cuts to community colleges and other higher education programs, cash assistance to poor families under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and child care. Reductions in these individual programs are bad enough, but this combination of cuts is especially problematic because it generates the potential for devastating effects for the future of Arizona and its labor force and economy.
The surest path to economic security is a job that pays family-sustaining wages. And poor and low-income families need support—in the form of education, job training, child care and other assistance—as they seek to obtain and hold onto employment with decent pay. Arizona already has the eighth highest rate of child poverty among the 50 states at 26.5 percent. The rate is particularly high among Native American and Hispanic children (38.6 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively). The state can ill afford to abandon children and families who are striving for success. That’s why the proposed cuts are so concerning.
Governor Ducey’s proposal would completely eliminate state funding for the three largest community college districts in Arizona, while also significantly cutting state support for public universities. Many low-income, minority and nontraditional students rely on community colleges as relatively inexpensive routes to getting the training, education, and skills required for career success. For instance, Maricopa Community College, which would see its state funding eliminated under the proposal, serves nearly 265,000 students annually. Of these students, half are racial or ethnic minorities, while 41 percent are at least age 25 and 72 percent attend part time. The governor’s proposal would put opportunities for career success that much farther out of reach for these and other low-income Arizonans.
Poor families also benefit from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is operated through block grants that allow states to determine (within guidelines) how to use the federal funds. The reported deal would slash the amount of time that the poorest parents and children could receive TANF cash assistance to meet their basic needs. Currently, Arizona provides up to 24 months of TANF cash assistance (which is already one of the shortest lifetime limits for any state); the proposal would slash that to only 12 months, which is unprecedented and far and away the shortest time limit for TANF of any state. Moreover, this time limit would apply to many cases where only children receive benefits. These cuts put children at risk of hunger, homelessness, and toxic stress that makes it harder for them to succeed in school and grow up as healthy, successful adults.
Another way to support low-income working families is by offering assistance with child care so that parents can seek and hold onto jobs while their children are being well cared for in safe and affordable settings. Governor Ducey’s proposal eliminates $4 million in funding that was just added this year to open up the child care assistance waiting list for children in low-income working families.
Arizona policymakers would do well to consider the impact of this short-sighted budget. By drastically cutting off the support that hard-working poor and low-income people in their state need to climb up the ladder to economic security, the state’s leaders are forsaking Arizona’s overall future success. For national policymakers, a key lesson driven home by this budget—negotiated behind closed doors—is the deep risks posed by proposals to give states flexibility to alter the fundamental structure of key federally funded safety net programs.