Washington State Shifts into New Ways of Thinking About Welfare and Transportation

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Pedestrians walk past a gas station in Seattle

It pays to listen. Washington state welfare case workers had heard plenty of stories from individuals in poverty about the hurdles they had to overcome to find and keep steady work, from irregular child care arrangements to physical or mental health issues and unpaid bills. But one problem dominated those conversations: finding reliable transportation.

The quandary faced by people who receive cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF) is especially severe because of the federal work requirements as a condition for receiving assistance. “We put these requirements in place without any real understanding of what it means [for a person] to live in poverty, and try to do everything we ask them to do, and raise a child,” says Babs Roberts, who directs the Community Services Division in Washington state’s Department of Social and Health Services.

Bridging the gulf between their clients’ hardships and federal program requirements led state officials to launch a new pilot program in 2015 that expanded existing transportation benefits for TANF recipients. The department’s plan was to “basically try to remove transportation burdens,” Roberts says. “So we were going to try to work with each client to get them whatever they needed to expand their opportunities.”

Roberts says that rather than the usual exchange between a person on public assistance and caseworker about bureaucratic requirements, “there was more of a conversation about how can we get you your own transportation, what’s the barrier to you actually having a vehicle, for instance.” She adds, “At that point, we’d start to hear things like ‘I have all these outstanding tickets and I can’t pay them’ and that began a conversation. Or, ‘I have a car but I can’t use it because I can’t get it insured,’ or ‘It’s not drivable right now.’”

The federal TANF program allows states to offer transportation assistance, but what some states provide isn’t always enough to meet some people’s needs. On average, only about half of TANF funds go toward basic assistance programs and special supports like transportation. States receive lump sum TANF block grant payments, allowing states to fund other services that may not target TANF recipients. (Some states even use TANF funds to plug budget deficits.)

Moreover, since TANF funds are not adjusted for inflation, the value of the dollars going to states has declined since the federal government launched the program in the late 1990s. In 2016, Washington state spent just over $1 billion in TANF federal and state funds. Similar to the national average, approximately 50 percent of this funding went to core program activities, including basic assistance, work activities, and other supportive services.

But though the federal TANF program could expand transportation access for recipients, not all low-income people receive TANF—far from it. Only 23 percent of people in poverty nationwide receive TANF. The rate is not much higher in Washington state, where 25 percent of people in poverty receive TANF benefits (about 31,000 of the state’s 125,000 people living below the poverty line).

Current state transportation benefit rules limit the amount of gas assistance that low-income people can receive. If a TANF client borrows a car to get to work and that car breaks down, a person can’t get assistance for repairs on that vehicle since the car isn’t registered to the TANF recipient.

State officials made slight but powerful changes in the pilot program. They allowed people to obtain gas cards more often, and redefined who could get vehicle repair assistance so that TANF clients could receive funds to repair cars that they share with others. The pilot also funds ride-share services like taxis and Uber, expands driver education assistance, and works with the courts and the state Department of Licensing to help people get new driver’s license or get revoked licenses back.

Two communities participated in the pilot: Alderwood, a rural area north of Seattle and Wenatchee, an urban area in the center of the state. Nearly 160 people participated in the program in Alderwood and in Wenatchee about 100 opted in. Of the benefits available, most people elected to use gas cards.

In certain poor urban communities, public transportation is erratic or nonexistent. Travel is harder if the trip is particularly long: Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within commuting distances of high-poverty neighborhoods and neighborhoods with majorities of people of color declined nationwide. Undependable public transit can make running errands or commuting to work or school especially difficult for people who may not have access to a vehicle. People in rural areas have the same concerns if keeping a car on the road is cost-prohibitive.

But the issue is about more than having a car. Many low-income people do have cars, but the vehicles might need repairs, or gas is too expensive. Registration, insurance, and other requirements also present financial burdens. “Having the [financial] resources you need could be more important than the journey itself,” says Alix Gould-Werth, a researcher who studies transportation access with the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.

State officials also knew that revoked licenses were a major barrier to driving. The agency decided to work with local municipalities and court systems to either assist clients in paying off their fines or help them negotiate with the courts to reduce fines or implement interest payments. According to Roberts, one woman who had multiple tickets and had her license revoked because she failed to pay the fines. The department helped her pay off those fines, and she was then able to drive her sick child to doctor’s appointments without the fear of being arrested.

Brent Baxter, a senior research manager in the social and health services department, says  that although researchers can’t draw any firm conclusions from such a small program, “there are certainly some real suggestions that this is helping people not only meet requirements of the program, but they’re most likely getting out more and meeting other needs that they have.” In Wenatchee, sanctions (when benefits stop because a client failed to meet a program requirement) decreased by 62 percent. Sanctions also declined in Alderwood. Participants receiving transportation benefits in Wenatchee completed more “work activities” to meet program requirements than clients that didn’t receive transportation benefits, and more people participated in work in Alderwood.

Because the program is so small, some advocates don’t know about it. Washington’s Statewide Poverty Action Network was not aware of the pilot, but was supportive of the program idea, including expanding it statewide. State lawmakers also view the pilot program as a success: The state legislature provided additional funds to help expand the pilot. The program now includes three more communities serving nearly 300 people, and the license reinstatement project has been expanded across the state.

Whether the state can expand other services statewide will depend on new funding. The department is also looking to expand transportation benefits in the pilot sites to clients who have left TANF because they’ve gotten employment, according to Roberts.

However, even though the program helps get low-income people where they need to go to meet TANF work requirements, there is convincing evidence that work requirements do not reduce poverty or encourage long-term employment. Federal work requirements are based on the idea that welfare recipients must be pushed into work. However, an array of barriers, such as poor education opportunities, that are the consequences of poverty make finding work difficult—especially well-paid and reliable work. That’s why many studies show that work requirements do not increase long-term employment among welfare recipients, and may make recipients poorer.

Yet the success of Washington state’s pilot may serve as a model for a more holistic approach to TANF transportation benefits in other states. Roberts and Baxter say that after they’ve presented about the initiative at national conferences, they’ve had other states inquire about how to implement this type of program.

There are other options for states to consider to assist low-income people with transportation. Gould-Werth, the transportation access researcher, points out that one option is free bus passes (the King County Metro Transit which serves Seattle and surrounding towns provides reduced price transit passes to low-income people, including TANF recipients).

The TANF programs in Maryland and Virginia have even moved to facilitate car ownership. These states partner with Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit group that offers cars to low-income residents who need vehicles for work. A person pays about $900 (with a guaranteed 12-month loan), and Vehicles for Change covers the rest. The organization pays about $5800 to put one of their refurbished, donated cars on the road—and the state departments of human services contribute about $2500. Vehicles for Change president Martin Schwartz tells The American Prospect that the organization provides Virginia with about 200 cars each year, while Maryland receives about 140 vehicles annually.

Meanwhile, Washington state’s transportation pilot, with its goal of eliminating barriers to travel regardless of circumstances, could be a powerful model for other programs geared toward low-income people, not just those receiving public assistance. This shift in thinking has made life easier for some TANF recipients, all because department officials began listening to what people had to say.

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