JMO and I traveled to Washington D.C. October 21-23 to attend the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP’s) 2019 TANF Advocate Conference. It was an educational and inspiring two days. Traveling alongside JMO, who has advocated for the TANF program since the early 1990s (before the 1996 welfare reform bill and even before TANF was created – it was Aid to Families with Dependent Children prior to 1996), was a special and educational experience for me.

I have been learning about and advocating on safety net programs since I started at Empower Missouri 13 years ago, but have never really learned the history and inner workings of the TANF program. The two days in DC provided me with a lot of information about the history and the changes this program has gone through since its beginnings. Additionally, it was inspiring to talk with advocates from all across the country who are passionate about the importance of safety net programs.

This conference gave both of us the opportunity to learn many things from these fierce advocates:

Language Matters: Much of the conference was spent talking about how important language is to our lives and our work—this includes how individuals see themselves, how we speak about others, and even how we talk about the programs for which we are advocating.  A lot of time was focused on “people first language”, a practice that we at Empower Missouri have been working to institutionalize for some time. For example, instead of saying “disabled person”, we say “person with a disability.”

Missouri is unique, but the same: Hearing from advocates from all across the country highlighted for me just how unique a place Missouri is, but also how many advocates have found success in ways that I think could be replicated in our state. For example, Minnesota  was able to build a large and diverse coalition to win an increase in their monthly allotment of TANF cash assistance. Missouri could do the same!

Advocacy, especially on the TANF program, can take place through administrative advocacy NOT just legislative advocacy: Missouri has the opportunity to make some strides forward with our TANF program through administrative advocacy, including conversations and other actions involving departmental personnel and the Office of the Governor, rather than the General Assembly. Administrative advocacy is a vital tool that many times is not used to its fullest potential. 

Looking at racial equity is important: This is true, not just through our organization’s work or our individual lives, but it also needs to happen when looking at each policy and program in our state and nation. TANF, along with many other programs and policies, was started, implemented, and continues to be run with a lens of racial bias. For example, during the beginnings of the TANF program, many states found ways to exclude Black, Latino and First Nations families from cash aid. Bringing that bias out into the open and addressing it head on is important to move these programs, and equality, forward. 

JMO, myself and all of us at Empower Missouri are grateful for the partnerships we have with the CBPP and many other national organizations. Their support and guidance is invaluable to us. Because of their technical support and guidance, Empower Missouri is able to be more successful in the work we do in Missouri. You can learn more about CBPP’s work on their website:

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