The Campaign for Cash, a leadership group convened by the Washington State Poverty Action Network, works to make direct cash assistance easily available for all who need it by organizing community partners and building leadership by those most impacted by unfair systems in our state.  

As we approach the 2024 legislative session, the Campaign for Cash wants to tell our stories about what it’s like to receive cash assistance and live on a low income in Washington state through a series of interviews and conversations. We hope that by sharing our experience, we can show that cash assistance programs are a lifeline for many but must do more to provide a pathway out of poverty for the people they exist to help. We hope that our voices can influence policy change to build a system that works for those most impacted by poverty in our state. 

Alina is a member of the Campaign for Cash who shares her experience with TANF and SSI in this interview. 

What has been your experience receiving cash assistance in Washington? 

Alina: Over 10 years ago when we were dealing with CPS (and that’s a whole long story), they insisted that we go on TANF when we didn’t really want to. My husband was working, but I guess you could call it underemployed because he wasn’t getting as much hours as he needed. But seasons do that, you know, when you’re in construction – when things calm down you don’t have as many things to do. 

CPS insisted that we get TANF, but then they wanted to know how we spent every dollar. It wasn’t the TANF program that was asking, it was CPS and it’s like, you know, stuff that we needed. How am I supposed to keep track of like every penny? If we needed something, we needed something. I didn’t necessarily write it down. 

And they were like, “well, you’re supposed to be saving this up to help get you out of poverty.” There were 11 of us at the time. The payment was like $747 or something like that, it really wasn’t that much. What am I supposed to save out of that? Explain that to me. Like with our bills and you know, the kids needing clothes and shoes and the things they need. What are we supposed to save exactly? There’s nothing to save. On top of that, they had all these requirements for job search and this and that.  

I was not even on TANF because I had used my 5 years off and on years and years before when I was having babies and couldn’t go back to work directly. I took 4 weeks off and had to pay rent, so I got a month of TANF. I didn’t realize that using one month ate up 3 months. I applied for it on like the 27th of the month, not the first, so they prorate that month, and you get like 15 bucks or something like that – I need to be clear this was in Idaho, and they are even stingier than Washington. And the whole payment was like $217 a month. That’s all – it was for me and 2 kids at the time and I only used it when I absolutely had to.  

I only used TANF when there was no way I could make up the difference no matter what I did. If I applied for it at the end of the month, they’d prorate that month, so that ate up a whole month. Then they give you the next month and then even if you ended it before the end of the month and don’t need the next month, they would still give you some teeny tiny payment like 10 bucks or something and say “well, this is how it works, it eats up 3 months.” 

That doesn’t even make sense. They have some explanation about how even if you didn’t get anything for the last part of the month, it still ate up 3 months because they take away a month before and a month after. So, you might as well stay on it a while if you’re gonna use it. How is this a safety net if you’re eating it up faster than you’re trying to use it? 

When I came to Washington and they insisted that we be on it, they’re like, “oh, you can’t, you don’t even qualify because you’ve used your 5 years.” But I really didn’t – I would use it for a couple of months here and there when I absolutely needed it, but I tried really hard not to use it if at all possible. It was just a really frustrating process. 

And then, here’s my husband who is employed, but wasn’t given as many hours as he needed and the hours that he was supposed to be working, they expect him to be at these job search things. And he’s like, “I’m working, I’m just not getting enough to make ends meet.” We didn’t even want to be on the program, CPS insisted. They said, “if you aren’t on the program, we’re gonna take your kids away.” And he’s like “how can I do both?” 

It was a, really, really frustrating program for a family that was trying to use it just as it’s intended. 

Do you have experience with other cash assistance programs? 

Alina: I have to say it is almost impossible to get approved for SSI. I went and fought for years trying to get it. I have fibromyalgia and several other things including narcolepsy and a condition that goes with narcolepsy that’s called cataplexy. Basically, you just go like paralyzed from your neck down. Like you can’t do anything, you can’t catch yourself, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just go down. I broke my arm pretty badly that way. I went to a court hearing for like my fourth or fifth time trying to get my SSI and the judge asked me exactly one question: he said, “do you go to church on Sunday?” 

And I said, “well, yes, because it’s about being thankful for what I have, not what I don’t have, you know. I just do the best I can and go to church” and they denied me on that one question. Because I go to church. I was denied. How does that even factor in? Like God doesn’t care if I, you know, get up and walk around and find a more comfortable chair. Just saying. That was when I literally was supposed to have an attorney. I had gone and secured them, signed all the paperwork and everything. They didn’t show up. So, I was on my own. It was like the fourth time I’d gone through, and I was just done. 

I haven’t fought it in years. I just gave up. And that’s what they want. I fought for 12 years before I finally just said, okay, I’m done. I can’t do it anymore. I’m tired. I can’t keep fighting for something I know I rightfully deserve and rightfully should have because I’m not faking my conditions. I’m a liability. I go anywhere and I say, “hey I have this condition called cataplexy” and they’re like “yeah we’re not going to hire this person” it was that simple. I went and asked several employers just to prove it and have their responses recorded and everything, and all of them said “no, we wouldn’t hire you, because you’re a liability if you get hurt on our property, and that’s not okay for us.” 

They went as far as to ask me during one of the hearings, “well, you just had a baby recently, right?” And I said yeah, and he says, “so obviously you and your husband have sex.” People in wheelchairs have sex, that doesn’t make them able-bodied, I’m just saying. How does this make me capable of working? How does me being able to be intimate with my husband make me capable of doing what everyone else does?  

And I still got denied over and over and over again. 

We are each the experts in our own lives and know how to meet our needs better than anyone else. We should all be able to get direct, flexible cash assistance when we need it.