The Rainy Day is Here: During COVID-19, States Should Increase Emergency Assistance

By Ashley Burnside

It’s no surprise that families need money to afford basic necessities like rent, groceries, and diapers—especially during the COVID-19 crisis as work disappears for many people earning low wages. And when families with low incomes have access to more cash, it can improve long-term health and education outcomes for children and the financial stability of entire communities. One way states can provide immediate help to children in families with low incomes is to create emergency assistance grants using unspent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds.

Over half of adults with lower incomes have reported losing their jobs or facing a pay cut because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and only 23 percent of those adults with lower incomes have enough “rainy-day” funds to cover expenses for three months. Families urgently need cash assistance to help them get by until the economy is more stable. Yet, some workers may have to wait weeks or even months for states to set up and process Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims and for the IRS to mail them Economic Impact Rebate Payments, while others are not eligible for these benefits.  

TANF funds are provided to states in a block grant and can be used for cash benefits and supportive services to families with low incomes. (Most uses of TANF funds are limited to families with children.) While the COVID-19 bills didn’t provide any new TANF funds, some states had significant unspent balances in their TANF accounts prior to the crisis (see chart below).  Those states with unspent funds should use them to meet families’ urgent needs.

Multiple states have already announced plans to provide additional emergency cash payments to families using TANF and other state funds during the crisis:

  • New Jersey proposed to issue supplemental payments to TANF cash assistance recipients that are equal to the benefit they received in the most recent complete month in addition to their normal monthly allotment. The Commissioner of Human Services would have decided how many months the supplemental payments would last. Unfortunately, the governor vetoed the legislation.

  • Virginia and West Virginia are both allowing current TANF recipients to apply for a one-time emergency benefit of $500 per household during the crisis.
  • Tennessee used TANF dollars to create an emergency assistance program providing up to two months of cash assistance. To be eligible, recipients must have been employed as of March 11, 2020, and have either lost their job or at least 50 percent of their income as a result of the pandemic. Applicants must also meet the income eligibility requirements as well as have a child under 18 or a pregnant individual in the household, Social Security numbers for all household members, and no assets over $2,000. Tennessee families can receive this emergency assistance in addition to unemployment insurance benefits. The program provides monthly benefits of $500 for a household of 1-2 people, $750 for a household of 3-4 people, and $1,000 for a household of 5 or more. 

The state’s program is not limited to current TANF recipients. Unfortunately, Tennessee has made access to this program overly complicated. Applicants are required to provide a layoff notice, Social Security numbers for all household members, and a birth certificate for anybody not born in Tennessee. These unnecessary barriers will make it harder for families to access this lifeline.

  • Washington created a Disaster Cash Assistance Program (DCAP) in response to the statewide emergency declaration that extends beyond households eligible for TANF. DCAP is available for one month in a 12-month period to all families and adults who meet income and asset eligibility requirements and who aren’t eligible for other cash assistance programs like TANF or Unemployment Insurance. Because the state includes no citizenship criteria, immigrants can receive DCAP. Childless adults can also receive the benefits. The DCAP benefit amount will match up to the TANF benefit for that family size. 

Elsewhere, advocates and lawmakers are pushing for their state officials to provide similar emergency assistance grants with TANF dollars. For example: 

  • Georgia advocates are calling on the state to use leftover TANF funds to provide short-term, non-recurrent benefits for families with low incomes that have children.

  • Massachusetts lawmakers have introduced H.D. 4622, which would provide a one-time emergency assistance payment to recipients of TANF and a program for the elderly and people with disabilities. The payments would equal their current monthly benefit.

  • Minnesota advocates are asking for a one-time $500 emergency assistance payment for TANF recipients using federal TANF funds. 

States control what TANF benefits families receive. However, even for the limited number of families with extremely low incomes who were already getting monthly TANF cash assistance, those benefits are often so small that they can’t cover all of a family’s expenses. In all states, the TANF monthly cash benefit for a family of three was at or below two-thirds of the federal poverty line as of July 2019 (read more in our CLASP brief on TANF cash assistance.)  

It’s clearly a “rainy day,” so all states should use their unspent TANF dollars to provide emergency assistance to families struggling to make ends meet. Families facing the COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t have to choose between accessing necessities like food and rent and needing to break self-isolation.