Basic Needs

We all hope that if we face a job loss or become disabled, we will have the support we need and the opportunity for a good quality of life. Strong public systems like the Disability Lifeline programs and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) ensure all people can meet their basic needs when times are tough, as well as lay the foundation for economic recovery.


According to the 2010 US Census, poverty rates are at an all-time high. In 2010, 9.2 million families lived below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), up from 8.8 million in 2009. The FPL is $23,000 per year for a family of four.

In Washington state in 2015, approximately 967,000 people lived below the FPL – that’s 161,000 more than in 2009.

Many of these families have turned to the state for help to meet their basic needs. However, at the same time, ongoing revenue shortfalls have forced deep cuts to critical support systems such as TANF , Disability Lifeline, and Medicaid Optional Services. Cuts to vital safety net programs threaten the economic security and health of our communities.

Because of the importance of our state’s safety net, Poverty Action plays a role in advocating for a broad spectrum of basic needs programs, including Working Connections Child Care, State Food Assistance, Apple Health for Kids, and many more. However, we play a lead role in advocating for TANF, HEN/ABD, and Medicaid Optional Services. In this way, Poverty Action stands with our members across the state to ensure all people can meet their basic needs and have opportunities to prosper.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Washington’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program strives to improve the well-being of struggling families with children by helping them reach economic security through employment. Families with children who have very low incomes (well below the Federal Poverty Level) and less than $1000 in assets are eligible for the program.1 TANF families receive a monthly cash grant to help cover the basics, such as rent, utilities, transportation, and personal health and hygiene products. As of July, 2015, the grant amount for a family of three was $521 per month.

Poverty Action has a long history of advocating for many components of this critical program, from increasing the grant amount, to allowing exemptions to the lifetime limit, to making WorkFirst programs more effective for low-income parents.

Poverty Action Policy Priorities:

  • Increase TANF and State Family Assistance cash grant (read more about State Family Assistance on our Immigrant & Refugee page)
  • Eliminate TANF time limits
  • Improve access to high quality educational and vocational training opportunities

After a partial restoration (9%) of the 15% grant cut made in 2011, we are working on a full restoration as well as supporting HB 1875 to increase the length of time, from 12 to 24 months, a TANF parent can participate in education and training opportunities.

Disability Lifeline Programs (HEN/ABD)

The Disability Lifeline programs ensure that we will have access to support and the opportunity for a decent quality of life if we become disabled and are unable to work. The assistance provided by Disability Lifeline are often the difference between housing and homelessness, between a meal and going hungry, or between a visit to the doctor and remaining sick.

In 2011, Disability Lifeline was restructured and separated into distinct programs:

  • Housing and Essential Needs
    The Housing and Essential Needs program provides housing assistance and essential hygiene products to people who are enrolled in the Disability Lifeline Medical program.
  • Aged, Blind & Disabled Program
    The Aged, Blind & Disabled program provides medical coverage and a $197 cash grant to people who are living on an extremely low income and are, 1) age 65 or older, 2) blind, or 3) have a long-term disability and will likely qualify for federal SSI benefits.

Poverty Action Policy Priorities:

  • Increase the Aged, Blind & Disabled cash grant
  • Restore a modest cash grant for Housing and Essential Needs recipients to buy their own essential needs

Medicaid Optional Services

Every person in Washington, regardless of a disability or income level, deserves the opportunity to be healthy. Poverty Action advocates for our state’s Medicaid Optional Services, which include maternity services, medical interpreters, Adult Vision, and Adult Dental. Of these services, Adult Dental is currently our top priority due to the repeated threat of elimination and severe reductions from ongoing revenue shortfalls.

Adult Dental
Too many Washingtonians cannot access affordable oral health care. Lack of affordable dental care affects people’s ability to eat, work, and go to school. It’s not just about teeth—oral health affects overall health. Dental problems, when left untreated, can lead to serious medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even death.

In 2013, Washington took a huge step and restored cuts made in 2011 to Medicaid’s Adult Dental program, as well as expanded this benefit to newly eligible (under the Affordable Care Act) Medicaid recipients. However, there are still many adults in Washington going without the care they need.

Poverty Action Policy Priority:
Expand dental access to disabled, senior immigrants.

1. Finch, Ife & Schott, Liz (November 2011). Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, “TANF Benefits Fell Further in 2011 and Are Worth Much Less Than in 1996 in Most States,” retrieved from