The Need for Unrestricted Cash for Low-Income Families: ‘This Money Allows Families to Thrive’

“Instead of increasing burdens that reduce efficiency and further push parents and children into poverty, we should cut out bureaucratic red tape,” urged Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities.

On July 12, the Work and Welfare Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing “Where Is all the Welfare Money Going? Reclaiming TANF Non-Assistance Dollars to Lift Americans Out of Poverty.” Among those testifying was Aisha Nyandoro, founding CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, a nonprofit that aims to end generational poverty.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a program that provides cash assistance and other services to low-income families, with a focus on allowing recipients to return to work.

Her testimony below highlights the importance of unrestricted cash assistance for families, including programs founded by Springboard to Opportunities. Watch her speech in its entirety here.

You may also like: Ms.’ Front and Center series, which offers first-person accounts from the women of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust guaranteed income project—a project of Springboard that provides Black women living in Jackson, Miss., a guaranteed income of $1,000 per month for 12 months. In Front and Center, these mothers speak on their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships, and their dreams for the future, and how a federal guaranteed income program could change their lives.

To begin, I’d like to acknowledge that all of us sitting here today share one common goal: to ensure that federal funding has the strongest possible impact on ending the scourge of poverty in America.

To date, many arguments on this issue have focused on imposing more restrictions on recipients to achieve this—which is proven to only exacerbate the inefficiencies present in current policy. In effect, we are blaming the families for their poverty, rather than interrogating the policies that allow these inadequacies to occur.

I lead Springboard to Opportunities, which works with families living in affordable housing in Jackson, Mississippi—families who are meant to be served by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Most are Black women—mothers working full time, many overtime, but still living on the fringes of poverty.  On average, the families we work with make less than $13,000 annually.

The population I work with is the very population in which TANF was designed to support. However, I only know of one person out of the thousands I work with who is currently actually receiving TANF.

We are blaming the families for their poverty, rather than interrogating the policies that allow these inadequacies to occur.

Brandy has consistently worked while also raising her children. Like many low-wage workers, she has experienced brief breaks of unemployment while going between jobs. When she applied for TANF and didn’t meet the state requirement of getting a job within a week, she was forced to be a “volunteer” at the Mississippi Department of Human Services office, filing papers for less than minimum wage, until she found what her casework deemed adequate employment.

But Brandy’s story is not unique. Ninety percent of Mississippians who apply for TANF do not receive it. Families I work with cite the barriers to entry: burdensome paperwork, a lack of support services, fear of sanctions and insufficient financial support.

Ashala is a perfect example of this reality. She was working in the food service industry and as a full-time caregiver for her grandparents. The only way she could maintain both responsibilities was to pay for childcare for her daughter, totaling over $360 a month. The $170 per month she could have received from the state program wouldn’t even cover her childcare cost.

Officials will claim that restrictions are intended to prevent abuse and fraud, but they continue to trap families in a cycle of generational poverty—while the actual perpetrators of fraud have been the people in power overseeing the program.

If anything can be learned by the TANF scandal in Mississippi, in which “non-assistance” funds went to paying for horse stables, rather than keeping funds in the “basic assistance” category to help families pay for necessities like diapers for babies or food for families living in poverty, it’s that we are focused on the wrong problem.

Additional restrictions on recipients are not the answer.

Instead of increasing burdens that reduce the efficiency of the program and further push parents and children into poverty, we should cut out bureaucratic red tape.

Money allows families to thrive. Yes, they spend it on basic needs such as childcare, groceries and utility bills, but it also allows them to plan for the future.

That is exactly what we’ve done for the past five years with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a program that we started because so many government programs—including TANF—do not work. Instead of endless applications and heavy restrictions, the Magnolia Mother’s Trust offers $1,000 in monthly cash assistance to moms in poverty for one year, without restrictions. In addition to cash support, our moms receive one-on-one support from trained staff who help them identify their goals and support them along the way.  

And what we’ve learned is that this money allows families to thrive. Yes, they spend it on basic needs such as childcare, groceries and utility bills, but it also allows them to plan for the future. Like Ebony, who started her own business as a salon owner; she’s not only an entrepreneur but she’s also employing others or Anquinette, who just graduated with a degree in early childhood education and is on her way to a higher-paying job.

In the five years in which we have been running this program, we have learned that the dignity and agency that cash without restrictions provides allows a family to dream about the future and reach toward it. Additionally, recipients are better able to provide for their children, who in turn perform better in school. These results are lasting, with our longitudinal research showing that families continue to reap the benefits of the one-year program even years after it ends.

Let’s reimagine what’s possible with TANF, as we’ve done with the Magnolia Mother’s Trust that provides cash assistance without work requirements because then, we can enable families to break free from the cycle of poverty and achieve economic security.

Up next:

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Aisha Nyandoro is the chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities.