What it’s really like to raise a family in DC on TANF

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For more than 40 years, the mythical and racially charged “welfare queen” narrative—the idea of a benefit recipient defrauding the government and living large on the public’s dime—has shaped discussions about US safety net programs and perceptions of who is worthy of support.

But in reality, families who receive cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) struggle to make ends meet.

In March, I was part of team of researchers who interviewed Washington, DC, mothers who receive TANF, typically about $150 a month. They shared their experiences receiving TANF in DC and the impact living in poverty has on them and their children.

Poverty takes an enormous toll on emotional well-being. Every mother faced high stress levels caused by unsuccessful employment searches, unstable housing, health issues, and administrative hurdles to getting assistance.

While balancing these stressors, mothers tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for their children. Donna (not her real name), a mother of two school-aged children, described this balancing act:  

I worry about a lot of stuff…. I cry sometimes. I tell my kids something got in my eye because I don’t tell them ‘Oh, I’m crying because I can’t pay the Pepco [electric bill], or we didn’t get our benefits this month, or we can’t survive off this little bit of money.’ I don’t want my kids to worry too.

These mothers spent many hours searching for resources to help their families. They struggled to keep their cash assistance and food stamps, to apply for housing assistance, to negotiate life in homeless shelters, and to seek support from other community organizations, working through complicated bureaucratic systems at every turn.

Despite arriving at the social services office early in the morning before it reached capacity, they would often wait for hours to be seen (). Staff couldn’t always answer their questions, and cases wouldn’t always be processed correctly:

They’ll tell you you’re all good, but…they’ll send it to the processing center, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to get processed.

The smallest error, either on the part of the mother or a staff member, could cost a family its benefits.

Accessing assistance required time and energy, and mothers felt that their preoccupation with finding resources and keeping the resources they had kept them from nurturing their children in ways they wanted to: 

When you’re always on a mission to something you need, it’s almost like you forget to let the kids be kids. 

Despite these challenges, every mother wanted to maintain stability for her children. Several mothers tried to keep consistent schedules. Others took their children to and from school and carefully coordinated their free time.

Amanda (not her real name), the mother of a toddler and a 7-year-old, described her experience living in a homeless shelter, the challenge of shielding children from the daily struggle of finding shelter, and aspirations she has for her children, including stable housing:

When we were moving around with the shelter, she [my daughter] was like ‘Ma, we have to stay here tonight?’ She’s concerned. She’ll ask questions that I don’t want her to worry about. You have to be careful what you tell your kids. You want her to be a kid, you don’t want her worrying about things she doesn’t have any control over at the end of the day. We all have been sleeping in the same room.... I want to get [my daughter] her own room, her own bed, her own space, where she can have all her toys. I just want her to feel like she can get some of the things that she wants.

The mothers we spoke with dream of more stability for themselves and their children, but for now, they are just trying to keep their heads above water:

I just try to maintain what I do have.... I try to keep the utilities on.