Basic Needs


Our communities are strongest when everyone – including children and families – can both meet their basic needs and access opportunity. And we all hope that even if we fall on hard times or unexpected challenges, we will still have access to support and a baseline of economic stability. However, in Washington state, those experiencing poverty today are having a harder time than ever. Twenty years ago, about one-quarter of families in poverty were experiencing “deep poverty.” Today more than forty percent of kids, parents, and individuals in poverty are experiencing deep poverty. That’s only about $10,000 a year for a family of three. While poverty has become more extreme, our state also dramatically slashed our safety net during the Great Recession by balancing our state’s budget on the backs of low-income residents.

Families of color disproportionately bear the brunt of these realities. Historical and contemporary racist policies that disproportionately underfund and criminalize communities of color are exacerbated when we do not have a strong safety net to provide basic support to families and individuals struggling with hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, physical disabilities, behavioral health challenges, and financial instability. Investing in basic needs support is a direct investment in our communities and a fundamental part of ensuring a baseline of economic security.

Providing Assistance to Families with Children

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)/WorkFirst is the primary way that Washington state protects children and families from the trauma and debilitating effects of deep poverty. The program provides cash assistance and child care to families while parents participate in WorkFirst, which helps in job search, training, and addresses barriers to employment. Although there are thirty percent more families with children living in deep poverty today than a decade ago, our TANF program is serving more than 30,000 fewer families today than ten years ago. That’s tens of thousands of children in poverty who have been left behind by our state.

What We’re Doing About It:

Poverty Action supports policy changes to TANF that reverse punitive structures and instead create a program that allows parents to access financial assistance while working towards their goals.

  • Undo harsh TANF policies that keep families from accessing TANF assistance including eliminating TANF’s lifetime limit and permanent disqualifications, and easing harsh sanction policies.
  •  Re-instate the Child Support Pass-Through for TANF families, which would allow families to receive a portion of their child support payments currently withheld by the state.

Providing Assistance to Adults With Disabilities

Washington state offers temporary financial assistance to eligible adults with mental illnesses or physical disabilities. The three main programs available are:

  • Housing and Essential Needs (HEN)— a program that ensures that extremely low income people diagnosed with significant mental illnesses or physical disabilities can meet their basic needs. The program provides rent, utility, and transportation assistance, as well as access to health and hygiene items. While HEN is a highly effective program for preventing homelessness for extremely low-income people with disabilities, the current funding shortage is significantly limiting its impact. As a result, county providers are incurring waitlists and eligible clients are not being served. 
  • Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD)this program helps extremely low-income adults with permanent mental health illnesses or physical disabilities by providing modest cash assistance of up to $197 per month.  The ABD cash grant remains at an all-time low after being slashed during the Great Recession, meaning recipients have fewer resources for out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Medical Care Services (MCS)— this program provides health care coverage for elderly or disabled immigrants receiving ABD who have legally verified immigration status but are ineligible for Apple Health. However, MCS recipients are unable to access routine dental care because MCS does not provide dental coverage.

What We’re Doing About It:

Poverty Action supports policies that prioritize the importance of funding social safety nets for Washingtonians with disabilities, and with raising cash grants to more sustainable levels.

  • Substantially increase funding for HEN in order to provide assistance to the state’s eligible but unserved population. We are happy that during the 2018 Legislative Session, a bill was passed that allowed more low-income Washingtonians with disabilities to access HEN funding. Now, it’s time to deliver on this promise by increasing state funding for HEN.
  • Raise the ABD cash grant to $363 to obtain parity with a one-person TANF cash grant. The ABD cash grant must be raised to reflect Washington’s rising cost of living.
  • Add a dental benefit to Medical Care Services coverage. The addition of a dental benefit would provide critical and potentially life-saving routine dental care to recipients of MCS.  Providing routine dental care would also save the state millions of dollars in emergency dental care costs.