Maine, Nebraska and Tennessee are among the states that have collectively been holding on to more than $5 billion intended to help low-income families get through hard times, ProPublica reports, citing federal data.
Even before the additional hardships imposed on the poor due to job loss, the deaths of low-paid essential workers and more, in 2019, Nebraska rejected nearly 90% of those who applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, according to another news organization, Public News Service. The state has not responded to press inquiries about the matter.
Despite growing evidence that cash payments to families lead to better outcomes for children and families, there is nothing illegal about states hoarding money. Under the 26-year-old, Clinton-era welfare reform law, states have leeway to decide eligibility rules, and many states have tightened their work requirements and eligibility provisions over the years.
“It’s become harder and harder for parents to access the program, despite there being a high level of financial need in the state,” Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said of Nebraska. “Just because families are poor, that doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t be there to support them when they’re having a financial emergency and it’s not a child’s fault if their parents cannot secure a job.”
Federal data shows that the amount of unspent TANF funds has doubled in the decade ending in 2020, and the number of applications approved by states has fallen by half, ProPublica reported. Nearly $700 million was reportedly added to the total pile of unspent cash during the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, which now totals at least $5.2 billion.
Hawaii, Tennessee and Maine stash the most cash per capita of those living at or below the federal poverty line.
Despite rising poverty rates, some states have continued their practice of not spending the temporary relief funds on children and families. Just over 16% of kids under age 18 lived in poverty in 2020, up from roughly 14% the year before, according to ProPublica.
Tennessee has the deepest pool of unspent federal welfare dollars nationwide — $790 million — though it has recently promised to spend it. Hawaii has $364 million, about $2,923 for every person living under the poverty line. Oklahoma has $264 million sitting idle — nearly twice its annual TANF budget.