Needy families hurt by program cutbacks

Havis Valasquez poses outside her classroom at Santa Fe College Friday, August 23, 2013. The state cut TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) by $15 million, including $220,000 locally, resulting in a layoff and cuts to training dollars.

Doug Finger/Staff phtoographer
Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 9:23 p.m.

Havis Velasquez said she had to drop some of her classes at Santa Fe College this semester when the money she was counting on to reimburse her for books fell through.

The 24-year-old mother of two was expecting the help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but the local workforce agency FloridaWorks eliminated its job training money that would have covered her costs as part of $15 million in cuts in TANF funding.

Velasquez is studying criminal justice with hopes of becoming a detective but said it will take longer to finish school now.

"I needed the assistance to purchase some of the books because the tuition financial aid won't cover any of that," she said.

The state's regional workforce agencies help cover child care and transportation expenses for families of children receiving TANF cash assistance so they can go to work or to job training programs.

Agency caseworkers also meet with recipients to make sure they are putting in the required hours of work or job-training activities — ranging from 20 hours a week for a single parent with a child younger than 6 to 55 hours combined for two-parent families who receive federal child care assistance.

But several years of budget cuts and rising work requirements have made it more difficult for workforce agencies to ensure recipients fulfill those requirements, putting the state at risk of millions of dollars in penalties to the federal funds that help families with expenses, job services and pregnancy prevention programs.

TANF funding for Florida's workforce system has dropped from $94.7 million in 2009 to $59.7 million this year, a 37 percent drop. With that funding apportioned based on local unemployment rates and caseloads, the FloridaWorks agency that covers Alachua and Bradford counties has seen a bigger drop over that time, down 51 percent from $1.1 million to nearly $552,000 this year.

TANF is just a part of the agency's funding. Executive Director Kim Tesch-Vaught said the agency was able to absorb the cuts until this year when funding dropped from about $723,000 to $552,000. The agency cut a caseworker position and eliminated $15,000 in training money. The rest of the funding cuts will be spread across all of the agency's programs, she said.

As TANF workforce funding has dropped statewide, so has the rate of families fulfilling work requirements. Lower rates combined with rising rate requirements last year caused the state to fall below the required measure for two-parent families.

The rate of two-parent families that met the work requirements dropped from 54.5 percent in 2011 to 53 percent last year, while the required threshold in Florida rose from 34.2 percent to 70.7 percent.

Failure to correct that could result in a penalty of as much as 5 percent of Florida's federal block grant, or a maximum of about $28 million depending on the portion of the total caseload made up of two-parent families.

"Last year, we realized the cut statewide was definitely going to have an effect on our ability to meet the participation rate," Tesch-Vaught said. "If it continues to be cut, I don't know that we'll be able to maintain the level of performance that the state needs to maintain the TANF block grant."

FloridaWorks' One-Stop Career Center has gone from three caseworkers to two, who handle more than 100 clients each.

Dana Norman, welfare transition program manager, said they already were seeing an increase in total cases since last fall before losing the third staffer.

"We are extremely busy day in and day out," she said. "It's constant. It just doesn't stop.

"We see anywhere from 10 to 20 new people a week applying for welfare transition services," she said.

The number of people receiving TANF cash assistance in the region went from 1,260 in July 2012 to 1,512 this July.

While the number of jobs in Gainesville is up over that time, Norman said a lot of people in the TANF program do not have the necessary skills or education for the kinds of jobs that are available.

"It's not just young single women," she said. "This is families, two-parent families, having to come in and apply for cash assistance because they can't find work and they're about to lose their home or their electricity is about to be cut off and they're at their wits' end. This is a last resort for them."

Even with the increased workload, the local agency was able to increase the rate of recipients meeting the work requirements by meeting with recipients every week instead of once or twice a month, Tesch-Vaught said. Between July 2012 and July 2013, the rate of two-parent families meeting work requirements increased from 50 percent to 80 percent, while the rate for all families increased from about 38 percent to 76 percent — tops in the state, Tesch-Vaught said.

She said she is concerned further cuts would make that difficult to repeat.

"There's no room left to cut," she said. "As a system, we were able to absorb this one last cut. I don't think we'll be able to do that if it's cut again next year."

She said the agency has not fared as poorly as others around the state from budget cuts, with some agencies cutting staff, training and support services.

Tesch-Vaught said the agency decided to keep funding support services such as child care, gas cards and bus passes, and to instead cut the TANF training money because other training funds are available through Pell Grants, Workforce Investment Act grants and from other agencies.

Valesquez is looking into her options to complete her education at Santa Fe.

"There's another loan I'm trying to see if I can qualify for," she said.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was created by the welfare reform law of 1996 to provide cash assistance to families with children and encourage recipients to transition back into the workforce. The largest portion of TANF funding goes to cash assistance for needy families with children that comes from the Department of Children and Families.

To qualify, families must have less than $2,000 in assets, no vehicles worth more than $8,500 and a family gross income of less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level — or less than $36,130 for a family of three.

The maximum cash assistance for a family of three is $303 per month.

Velasquez receives $198 since she is not eligible for a housing allowance.

"It's better than nothing if I need diapers or little stuff that me and my daughters need," she said.

Total federal TANF funding to Florida dropped from $780 million in 2010 to $562.3 million last year. The 2010 amount included $60.4 million in additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or federal stimulus, that ended after 2010.

While the federal block grant amount remained $562.3 million this year, the state had $42 million in carryover money in 2012 that was not available this year. The Florida House proposed a budget to make up the money from general revenue, but the Senate budget proposal that was ultimately adopted did not.

The cuts were felt across the TANF program, with the Department of Children and Families dropping from $251.9 million to $229.0 million; workforce funds through the Department of Economic Opportunity dropping from $74.6 million to $59.7 million; and $5.5 million in Department of Health funds for pregnancy prevention eliminated entirely. Department of Education funding for child care remained at $98.3 million.

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