Families are suffering, and opportunities for our most vulnerable and low-income families have been slowly diminishing in Washington. For the past few years, WorkFirst, the state’s initiative for helping low-income parents find and keep jobs, has suffered round after round of crippling cuts.
When President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law back in 1996, the federal government handed states the responsibility of helping the poorest Americans meet basic needs and get back on a path to work. This gave states the opportunity to create innovative strategies to help families move out of poverty, off welfare and into economic security.
Certainly, the needs of families have not decreased. The Great Recession may be officially over, but many families continue to struggle. One in six Washington children lives in poverty – a 30 percent increase since the recession began. We currently have more than 27,000 homeless kids in Washington – a 47 percent increase since the onset of the Great Recession. In Tacoma, we have 1,193 homeless children in our K-12 system.
• State spending on WorkFirst has declined by 26 percent since 2009, in spite of stubbornly high unemployment and rising poverty. In 2012 alone, the Legislature cut $127 million – the largest single cut to the state’s entire budget that year.
• Since 2010, more than 27,000 people have lost services because of policy changes, which include tighter income limits for grandparents who care for their grandchildren and strict enforcement of the maximum period for which services can be provided, even in the hardest economic times. Two-thirds of those who have lost services under the time limits are children.
• The minimal assistance provided under WorkFirst – which helps families afford basics like housing, clothes and school supplies – has dropped sharply since 1996. Cash assistance is now equivalent to just 30 percent of the poverty level. A family of three receives just $478 per month.
The result is that WorkFirst, the state’s primary effort to get more low-income people into the workforce, and ultimately less reliant on welfare, is collapsing.
Some lawmakers argue that the cuts are justified because the number of people using WorkFirst has declined, leaving funds left over from year to year. Unfortunately, that’s not an accurate characterization. Fewer families are receiving assistance because policy choices imposed over the last few years have forced them out or made them ineligible in the first place.
In this tough economic environment, cutting WorkFirst is counterproductive. Families turned away are likely to end up in services that are more expensive to the state, including homeless shelters, foster care and jails. It would be better for taxpayers, and the economy, to keep people from slipping through the cracks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The recently passed House budget starts to rebuild opportunities for low-income people who work hard and play by the rules to become self-sufficient. The House budget reinvests in important aspects of WorkFirst, such as child care for low-income working families.
Providing high-quality early learning for low-income kids has a high return on investment; low-income families, many of them headed by single parents, cannot work if they cannot find or afford child care.
Without additional revenue, more cuts to WorkFirst are inevitable. Lawmakers have plenty of options to make sure everyone pays their fair share. The governor and House have already taken a step in the right direction by proposing to end some tax breaks so that we can meet our obligation to fully fund education. However, we cannot fund education at the expense of the safety net.
We must have political courage for kids this session and recognize that homeless, hungry kids can’t learn.
David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, represents the 29th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.