For the hundreds of thousands of Missourians struggling to afford the basics — such as food, shelter, and medicine — cash income is vital to averting extreme economic hardship. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic downturn have made clear how much Missourians need cash for a variety of basic needs: rent and utilities, personal care items such as soap, toothpaste and diapers, gas or bus fare, and others. The federal stimulus payments of $1200 for heads of households responded to this reality, as did the extra $600 per week of pandemic unemployment benefits that were available for a limited time.
We celebrate that Congress passed coronavirus relief in early 2020 out of recognition of the urgency of our national situation, and we have been vigorously advocating for a new and robust package to be passed. But if we can acknowledge how vital adequate cash is to family stability and offer unemployment extenders like $600 per week, Empower Missouri believes it is important to ask this: why has Missouri left its cash assistance program for destitute families frozen at such an inadequate level for nearly 30 years?
In 1991, cash assistance for Missouri’s poorest families was provided by Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Then came the era of welfare reform from 1994 until 1996 when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). PRWORA ended the entitlement to cash assistance, replacing it with a block grant program. AFDC became Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with a stress on the T, as rigorous time limits were established for most heads of households. (In 2015, Missouri cracked down on parents in poverty by reducing the time limit from 60 months in a lifetime down to 45 months through Senate Bill 24, which became law over Gov. Nixon’s veto.)
Cash assistance is a vital but modest resource for Missourians: benefits alone don’t cover basic needs. The maximum TANF benefits for a family of three is $292 per month, just 16 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL). While these temporary assistance (TA) benefits are important to families who receive them, they do far less today than they did a generation ago. In 1991, the last time that state lawmakers increased benefits, maximum TA benefits left a family of three at 31.5 percent of the FPL, or nearly double the share they receive today. Had grant levels stayed constant at 31.5 percent of FPL, maximum benefits for a family of three would be $570 per month today.
One basic need that many recipients of cash assistance struggle to secure is decent housing. Yet, only one in five TA families in Missouri receive housing assistance, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of HUD data. TA families without housing assistance have high rates of housing instability — sometimes resulting in doubling up with friends, living in substandard settings, frequent moves, eviction, and/or homelessness. Further, the monthly TA benefit for a family of three in 2018 was only 36 percent of the average cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment and utilities in Missouri, according to the Out of Reach report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Maximum TA benefits in Missouri were among the lowest in the nation in 2018, ranking as the 14th lowest level among all states and the District of Columbia. The state’s cash grant of $292 per month for a family of three was $158 below the national median grant of $450 per month.
Three of Missouri’s eight bordering states — Illinois, Nebraska, and Tennessee — have raised their grant levels in the last few years. It is time that Missouri joins them in modernizing our TANF benefit. After all, families qualify for TANF because the head of the household is unemployed or has inadequate earnings from a job or jobs. Families that need TANF are often fleeing from domestic violence or in other serious straits, and they are just as valuable as any other family in society. Please join Empower Missouri in demanding a sustained and serious discussion of this issue in the 2021 Legislative Session.
Jeanette Mott Oxford
Director of Policy and Organizing