Public Benefits are Key! TANF and WorkFirst – May 31st, 2023

Welcome back to 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 700,000 families in the US.

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 Hannah Rosenberger of Benefits Legal Assistance at Solid Ground.

How Can Someone Access TANF Benefits?

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a cash assistance program available to 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 US 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 child or 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.

Questions about eligibility? Visit

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

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 $417/month for a single person and increases based on household size. For a full list of benefit amounts, check out the slides above.

NOTE that many changes to income and resource limits are going into effect in 2024! Check out this flier from Statewide Poverty Action Network for more info:

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 the household includes:

  • Those who are claiming TANF exclusively for children (child-only TANF) – *NEW* in 2024!
  • An elderly (55+) caretaker relative
  • 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 hardship extensions (of 3,6, or 12 months) if they are:

  • Working 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, as the pandemic state of emergency is about to end, so has the availability of COVID-19 related hardship extensions – ending on June 30, 2023. Make sure to contact DSHS if you are seeking other time limit extensions!

NOTE that many changes to exemptions and extension limits are going into effect in 2024! Read more at this link!

Benefits Legal Assistance recommends a few tips for 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
  • 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 an applicant:

  • Has a baby under 1 year old
  • Has a severe and chronic disability
  • Is a caregiver aged 55 or older
  • Is a caregiver that is responsible for a special needs child
  • Is a caregiver that is responsible for an adult relative with disabilities

There is also a *NEW* good cause exemption starting July 23rd, 2023 – a flexible program that may consider other caregiver challenges that limit a person’s ability to do work, training, or educational activities.

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.

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
  • Licenses and other occupational expenses
  • Relocation expenses
  • And more!

For more information for advocates, visit the Support Services Directory.

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), 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.

This may not be the fault of the TANF recipient! Some reasons for DSHS perceiving noncompliance include family illness, lost transportation, housing insecurity, or immediate legal problems that would prevent a person from completing conditions of their IRP or staying in contact with DSHS. Clients may also have disabilities that prevent them from completing portions of their IRP, which should be documented in an Equal Access Plan.

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

  • Read the IRP carefully to understand the requirements
  • Designate an authorized representative if needed – this can be family member or 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
  • Report to DSHS by the 10th day of the following month:
  • If income increases
  • If there is change in household size
  • If resources increase
  • If there is change in employment or approved work activity

If benefits are denied, terminated, or sanctioned, you can appeal this decision in any of the following 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.