Public Benefits are Key! TANF and WorkFirst – February 29th, 2024

We All Agree: Public Benefits are Key!

As our frontline human service workers, you know the difference public benefits can make! One of the most vital benefits is TANF, a cash assistance program that is accessed by over 800,000 families in the United States.

Check out our updated presentation to learn about TANF eligibility, benefit limit exceptions and extensions, WorkFirst requirements, client advocacy tips, and recent program updates from Patty Bowen and Brittany Lowell of Benefits Legal Assistance at Solid Ground.

***Do you have specific questions for a client? Need help challenging a denial, termination, or sanction? Providers can contact Solid Ground’s Ask a Lawyer Program at benefitslegalhelp[at]solidground[dot]org – include “ask a lawyer” in the subject line – or call 206-694-6742.

What are TANF Benefits?

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a cash assistance program available to low-income families with dependent children.

A family may be eligible for TANF if they:

  • Meet the income limits and resource limits for the program (refer to slides for income limits for various household sizes)
  • Are U.S. Citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States – although non-citizens may be eligible for the State Family Assistance Program
  • Are Washington state residents
  • Are responsible for a child
  • Are a pregnant person
  • Cooperate with the Division of Child Support (if a parent is required to pay child support) – however, this may be waived if cooperating may endanger the family, such as in cases of domestic violence

Child-Only TANF is also available for some children, even when other household members, including kin caregivers, are ineligible due to non-citizenship.

Tribal TANF is available for Native American and Alaskan Native families. They are administered by specific tribes and distinct from state benefits.

To apply for any form of TANF benefits and other state benefits, visit or call DSHS at 877-501-2233.

Questions about eligibility? Visit

Eligibility depends on a person’s income and resources: a 2-person household must earn less than $1,140 per month in earned income. They must also have less than $12,000 in liquid resources, such as cash on hand, checking or saving accounts, or vehicles – note that as of 2024 the value of one vehicle is excluded when used by the household for transportation.

A note on earned vs unearned income: Earned income is typically income from employment. Unearned income is income from another source, such as Social Security benefits or unemployment insurance.

When considering income limits, unearned income is considered dollar for dollar, in that if a family of two receives $2,000 in SSDI and unemployment, they are ineligible due to exceeding the income level limit of $1,056 for a family of two.

However, earned income is counted at 50%, with an additional earned income disregard of $500 (starting August 1st, 2024). For example, if a family of two receives $2,000 in wages from employment, it is officially considered $500 ($2000/2-$500), and therefore below the income level limit of $1,056 for a family of two, qualifying them for benefits (note that the additional $500 disregard does not go into effect until August 2024).

Benefit amounts start at $450/month for a single person and increases based on household size. See a full list of payments standards below:

What Other Cash Benefits are Available?

For those ineligible for or not receiving TANF, other programs may be available to families. These include:

How Long do TANF Benefits Last?

TANF is typically available for only 60 months (5 years) in a person’s lifetime. However, there are a few exceptions that allow a family to be exempt from this time limit, such as if someone is:

  • Claiming TANF exclusively for children (child-only TANF)
  • An elderly (55+) relative caretaker
  • Caring for an adult relative with disabilities
  • Caring for a child with special needs
  • An adult with chronic disabilities

Families may also be eligible for time limit extensions (of 3, 6, or 12 months) if they are:

  • Working at least 32 hours per week
  • A survivor of family violence
  • Working with Children’s Administration on child welfare issues involving any of children in a dependency case for the first time
  • Experiencing homelessness

Sadly, the availability of COVID-19 related hardship extensions ended on June 30, 2023. However, a new form of time limit extension applies to those who received TANF benefits during a month where there was a high rate of unemployment, like April 2020 – these families may receive a 3 month extension.

NOTE that many changes to exemptions and extension limits are going into effect! See the one-pager below:

Benefits Legal Assistance recommends a few tips during the application process:

  • If an applicant’s family is homeless, make sure it is clear on the application! This will flag exemptions and exceptions to benefit time limits.
  • Provide proof of income with the application – benefits can be delayed if DSHS is waiting on proof of income
  • If a client list their job they must submit a Stop Work Form (DSHS 14-438) to verify lost income with DSHS
  • Advocates can go to TANF/WorkFirst meetings with clients! This is a great opportunity to ask questions and support your client.

What is WorkFirst?

WorkFirst is a program that most TANF recipients are required to participate in. It requires recipients to participate in employment, job search, job training, or education activities for 30-40 hours per week. Some recipients may be exempt from WorkFirst requirements, such as if someone:

  • Has a young child
  • Has a severe and chronic disability
  • Is 55 or older and a caregiver
  • Is responsible for a special needs child
  • Is responsible for an adult relative with disabilities
  • Is experiencing a hardship as defined by DSHS, like:
    • Personal trauma, like the loss of a loved one or accident
    • Digital barriers, like limited or no access to internet connection
    • Housing instability to lack of access to hygiene facilities
    • Health challenges, like temporary physical disability
    • Legal obligations, like court-ordered appointments or probation requirements

To comply with WorkFirst requirements and receive full benefits, a recipient must attend a WorkFirst orientation and adhere to the terms of an Individual Responsibility Plan (IRP), which is a contract as decided by both the TANF recipient and DSHS, that should evaluate the barriers and tools needed that affect a person’s ability to work. If a beneficiary wants to update their IRP due to changed circumstances, they or their advocates can request this from DSHS.

*NOTE that IRP compliance is determined on an individual basis and reflects a beneficiary’s circumstances. DSHS is required to create a reasonable process that allows easy compliance.

In order to achieve their professional goals, TANF recipients are entitled to WorkFirst Support Services, which grants up to $5,000 per year to access:

  • Personal hygiene needs
  • Childcare
  • Vehicle repair
  • Bus passes
  • Licenses and other occupational expenses
  • Relocation expenses
  • Counseling
  • And more!

For more information, visit the Support Services Directory.

Benefits Legal Assistance recommends a few tips when in the WorkFirst program:

  • Read the IRP thoroughly – if there is something you feel you’ll have trouble following, call DSHS as soon as possible
  • Advocates should attend meeting and advocate when possible
  • Identify yourself as homeless or dealing with a health issue to nullify the job search requirement
  • If unhoused, your IRP can list activities that help get into housing, such as regularly meeting with a housing case manager, DV advocate, or counselor
  • Remember that if exempt from WorkFirst, they can still access WorkFirst Support Services!

What are WorkFirst Sanctions?

In certain cases, TANF recipients may be sanctioned for not complying with the conditions defined in their Individual Responsibility Plan (IRP) for multiple months, such as not taking a job offer or completing job readiness activities like job training or school, or if DSHS cannot contact a TANF recipient, which can result in a reduction in TANF benefits.

Some common reasons for noncompliance include family illness, lost transportation, interrupted childcare, housing insecurity, or immediate legal problems that would prevent a person from completing conditions of their IRP or staying in contact with DSHS.

Benefits Legal Assistance recommends a few tips to avoid WorkFirst sanctions and other benefit pitfalls:

  • Read the IRP carefully to understand the requirements
  • Go to all appointments listed in your IRP
  • Show you are doing your best to accomplish everything in your IRP
  • Designate an authorized representative if needed – this can be family member, case manager, or friend who can help advocate
  • Request an Equal Access Plan if the applicant has mental or physical impairments that could impact benefit application or maintenance
  • Advocate if the applicant is unhoused or has health problems
  • Contact DSHS as soon as possible if you have not complied with any activities on your IPR
  • Report to DSHS by the 10th day of the following month:
    • If income increases
    • If there is change in household size – including breakups or children moving out
    • If resources increase above $12,000
    • If there is change in employment or approved work activity

If benefits are denied, terminated, or sanctioned, you can appeal this decision by requesting a hearing in a few different ways:

  • Contacting the case worker listed on the recipient’s IRP
  • Calling DSHS Customer Service: 1-877-501-2233
  • Calling the Office of Hearing Administration: 800-583-8271

Make sure to Request a hearing within 90 days! You can also request benefits to continue within 10 days of receiving unresolved sanction/termination notice by contacting DSHS.

***Do you have specific questions for a client? Need help challenging a denial, termination, or sanction? Providers can contact Solid Ground’s Ask a Lawyer Program at benefitslegalhelp[at]solidground[dot]org – include “ask a lawyer” in the subject line – or call 206-694-6742.

If you have specific questions, you may also reach out to directly to April, Janelle, Patricia, or Brittany on the Benefits legal Assistance team.


Those who attend this training are probably passionate about public benefits and making them accessible to our vulnerable community members. If this is you, check out our Advocacy Power Half Hour, in which our resident policy expert, Hali Wallis, gives background on the legislative session and shows how YOU can advocate for TANF and other social safety nets during our state legislative session.

Hear directly from Hali on our YouTube recording!