EDITOR’S NOTE: An increase in TANF assistance for impoverished Illinois families was secured through advocacy by CCH, The Shriver Center, and Heartland Alliance.
By Maureen Foertsch McKinney
Illinois recipients of Temporary Aid for Needy Families – also known as TANF – will see an increase in the amount of their monthly grants in October. A $22 million boost was negotiated in the budget this year. Advocates for the poor say the difference may mean more families will be off the streets.
Maxica Williams was struggling to make ends meet as she juggled two part-time jobs. Then, three years ago, the Chicago resident was diagnosed with breast cancer. She endured chemotherapy and other treatments that left her unable to work.
Her family ended up homeless for eight months because she couldn’t meet the costs related to raising her four children – even though she had aid, known as TANF. She says she was appreciative of the assistance.
“I don’t want to sound bad and negative. But the amount was just not enough to survive and be able to take care of every basic need that I had with the family,” the 40-year-old said.
The approximately $400 TANF grant she received for herself and her three minor daughters wasn’t enough to rent a modest apartment because she couldn’t meet the landlords’ rental guidelines. Williams also has an 18-year-old son for whom she no longer receives assistance.
Niya Kelly, state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said it’s not uncommon for TANF recipients like Williams to become homeless. Families have had to make really difficult decisions about what is paid and what is sacrificed, she said. Do they buy shoes and clothes? Pay for transportation? Or buy diapers and formula?
“In talking to families, they’re saying that this means that they may be able to pay another bill this month, making sure that they keep the lights on, making sure they can pay their rent – things that other folks take for granted,” she said.
This year, in Illinois, the amount of money set aside for grants was the smallest in all states but Arkansas.
The last increase in Illinois grants was a decade ago. The previous boost was 22 years back. A family with a single parent and two children will get about $100 more a month, raising the grant to $520. Families with four to six members will get as much as $250 more a month.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter, a Chicago Democrat, says the bipartisan agreement was negotiated in the budget. A Senate measure that drew votes from Democrats and Republicans would have had increases over three years.
“I’m happy that folks decided that they wanted to make a difference in poor people’s lives and try to address the poverty issue here in the state of Illinois,’’ Hunter said. “Everybody decided to work together to negotiate this issue and, as a result, our families have a few more dollars on the table that they can work with.”
One of the opponents to the increase was state Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican. He said, “It wasn’t the biggest priority compared to others. … I thought would it would those dollars would get served better.
Maxica Williams testified before lawmakers in Springfield this spring. She says she tried hard to convince legislators of the need for a TANF hike.
“It meant a lot for me to get out there and let legislature know what was going on with us,” said. “You need TANF because of real serious issues.’’