Today, nearly one in five children are living in poverty in Washington State. According to the federal poverty guidelines, that’s approximately $20,000 per year for a family of three. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly $1,666 per month for rent, utilities, child care, transportation and putting meals on the table. Think about your monthly budget – could you make it work? Probably not, and that’s exactly why many of these families need a little extra support.

As our state climbs its way out of the recession, policymakers are now faced with decisions on whether to restore services or programs that received significant cuts over the last few years. Many of these programs were cut so the state could merely “keep the lights on” – not necessarily because it was the best idea at the time. As legislators in our state debate the budget for the next biennium, we must remind them of a critical cut from 2011 that is now hurting some of the most vulnerable children and families in or state: the 15 percent cut to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. These are the families who are struggling the most – living on only 30 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2014, that was a meager $5,937 per year for a family of three.

TANF is a critical safety net for low-income families and children. These are families who have simply fallen on hard times and need a little extra support to get them back on track – hence the “temporary” nature of the assistance. Despite a five year limit, the average stay on TANF is only 18 months. In addition, 49 percent of families are on TANF for less than one year and then do not return to the program. Only 5 percent of recipients stay on TANF persistently.

So what do these families look like? In total, there are 39,467 families, which includes 57,089 children. According to the program’s eligibility requirements, these families can have no more than $1,000 in assets and $5,000 of equity in a car – anything more disqualifies them from assistance. They are also required to participate in activities that can lead them to work to become self-sufficient. Most of these families only have one or two children. Not many live in subsidized housing – in fact, nearly 90 percent of those who rent are paying market rates. More disturbing, of the families on TANF as of November 2013, 5,350 were homeless – that’s about 15 percent of all families on TANF.  (Interestingly, the number of homeless children in our schools has been rising since 2010 – likely not a coincidence since the poorest families lost 15 percent of their income while rents soar.)

How can we expect a child to thrive if their most basic needs are not met? Research shows that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on physical and mental health, and particularly adverse effects on academic outcomes, especially during early childhood. Our children deserve more.

If the TANF grant is restored, these families would receive approximately $84 more per month for an estimated total of $562 for a family of three. In a recent survey of current TANF families by the Statewide Poverty Action Network, respondents said they would put the money toward very basic needs, such as space heaters for the cold nights, utility bills, diapers, car maintenance, child care, gas, or participation fees for a child’s school activities.

This modest increase would only represent a sliver of the overall state budget – approximately 0.0017 percent over the next two years. A small price to pay to help build up these families. If TANF is not restored, we are doing a disservice not only to these families, but to the economic future of our state. Washington is one of only three states where poverty is increasing. Without an extra hand to pull these families out of poverty, one can only imagine poverty will continue to rise in our state.

Now is the time to restore TANF to pre-recession levels. For the health of Washington’s economic future. For our families. And mostly importantly, for our children.