Current Issues


In April of 1997, the state legislators passed “WorkFirst” legislation in response to the federal passage of welfare reform. This legislation changes the focus for needy families from welfare to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). What does this mean, and what are goals of the state?

It means that families now receiving state aid have life-time benefits of only 5 years. Every family is expected to work. The State of Washington, under “WorkFirst,” adopted three main goals:

  • Reducing poverty by helping people get jobs.
  • Sustaining independence by helping people keep jobs.
  • Protecting children and other vulnerable residents.

In order to implement “WorkFirst,” four departments in Washington State are working together to assist heads of households to obtain and sustain jobs. These departments are:

  • Department of Social and Health Services,
  • Employment Security Department,
  • The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (in Spokane, it is Community Colleges of Spokane), and
  • the Department of Community Trade and Economic Development.

“WorkFirst” started in July 1997. For those families receiving benefits as of July 1, 1997, and still on TANF (formerly AFDC) as of July 1, 1998, one year of their 5 years has passed.

All families with children over 1 year of age, and receiving TANF benefits, must participate in “WorkFirst’s” initial program, “Work Search.” While on this program, individuals are expected to find a job–any job. If unable to find a job, individuals will be provided the services needed to assist in gaining a paying job. Resources available include work experience, adult basic education, vocational education, ESL services, substance abuse and treatment centers, child care, family literacy, and family violence programs.

What are some of the challenges in assisting families in becoming financially independent?

  • Affordable Child Care – Spokane has a shortage of child care–especially evenings, nights, and weekends. Since many entry level jobs require evenings, nights, or weekend hours, child care at these times is critical. Yet, in the City of Spokane, we are only able to locate a few child care programs that are open evenings, nights, and/or weekends. In addition, the state reimbursement for child care is lower than the market rates. In order to stay in business, child care facilities need to have a mix between state pay and private pay. This leaves many TANF families without childcare, making it difficult to enter or remain in the workforce.
  • Transportation – Many families in “WorkFirst” rely on public transportation to take their children to child care and get to work. Families are finding that they may live as far as half to ¾ mile from a bus stop. This becomes a challenge when there are 1 or 2 toddlers to be carried, and/or preschoolers, a diaper bag, and lunches. It becomes an even bigger challenge in the snow. For some families, it could mean more than an hour of travel in each direction.
  • Living Wage Jobs – A person needs a full-time job paying $9.50 an hour with health insurance to become financially self-sufficient. Entry level jobs pay minimum wage. To obtain a job at $9.50 an hour in Spokane, one needs advance training and education. Many people on TANF do not have a high school education and/or are learning disabled.
  • Job Progression – Once a person is working, assistance is provided to acquire advance skills so that person can move into higher wage jobs. Educational programs through the Community Colleges of Spokane and job training programs are available to assist people. Time is a challenge facing a single parent family–time for work, school, and children. Without a car, the challenge becomes greater because it takes more time traveling between child care, work, and school. For families who can acquire the necessary supports, the job training programs can help acquire the skills for higher wages.
  • Business’s Recruitment – Businesses, government, and citizens of the Spokane community are working hard to attract businesses that pay living wages. According to the Pace Report, 45% of the working population in Spokane, excluding the health industry, earn wages below $14,000 a year (poverty wages). For people on TANF to become financially independent, Spokane needs to develop more jobs that pay higher wages as well as train people to work in these higher wage jobs.

For many people, “WorkFirst” has provided opportunities to move from welfare to work. It has enabled people to build job skills and become financially sufficient. For others, it has not only assisted, but it also has presented new challenges. The concern of all of us in the community is: who is taking care of school-age children when parents are working? Do children have a safe place to go when parents are working? Are children better off emotionally and educationally? Only time and research will provide information on the impact of “Workfirst” on the children.

If you have any comments or questions about “Workfirst,” please e-mail [email protected]. or write to me at the Human Services Department, West 808 Spokane Falls Blvd., Spokane, WA 99201..

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