Life Support

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and related employment services has helped thousands of people like Jamaica get back to work. Its own future looks less positive.

TANF assistance helped springboard Jamaica Imani-Nelson from poverty into a career. But those opportunities could get the axe under the state's budget plans.

By Joanne Zuhl
Staff Writer

Through the clarity of her own past, Jamaica Imani-Nelson can see the future, in a sense, of thousands of Oregon families struggling to overcome poverty and unemployment.

It does not look good.

Not too long ago, Imani-Nelson was in their shoes, one of the 30,000 families — including about 55,000 dependent children — using the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and related programs to get back on their feet. TANF, as it’s known, provided a small cash allowance per month, but it also enveloped Imani-Nelson with programs to help her overcome her barriers to employment: recovering alcoholism, employment gaps, a legal history and incarceration. Because without a job, and with two small children, $488 per month from TANF was no measure of surviving.

With support, however, it worked. She competed for and received an internship with PovertyBridge. Within three months, she was hired and is now a full-time employee there.

Under Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed budget, an estimated 7,000 families with children will lose that kind of stability or support. Kitzhaber is proposing more than $67 million in reductions in TANF as part of an across-the-board effort to balance the budget against a $3.5 billion anticipated shortfall. It’s a penny-wise and pound-foolish cut, observers say, that will result in more families becoming homeless, more children entering foster care, and fewer people getting back in the work force.

“It is our reasonable duty to make sure that our children, our most vulnerable community members are safe, that they are taken care of, that they are not neglected,” Imani-Nelson says. “If this proposed cut is set in place, we are neglecting our reasonable duty to do just that. We will be throwing thousands of children in Multnomah County into the street.”

Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions, which houses families with children in poverty, says people are already scraping by to pay rent, and this will put them over the edge.

“TANF is a safety net, and we should be increasing TANF, not decreasing it,” DeMaster says. “That’s the travesty in this.”

Read more about what’s at stake with the planned cuts to TANF and the JOBS program in this edition of Street Roots, on sale now from Street Roots vendors.

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