With Nebraska’s legislative session in final weeks, advocates say funds for poor at risk

DHHS hasn’t yet released its plans for federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF
The state says it has a plan for the pile of unused dollars sitting in Nebraska's TANF fund.
Published: May. 10, 2023 at 6:35 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - With 14 days left in this session of the Nebraska Legislature, there’s disappointment among a group of state senators who have watched their bills to help the poorest of the poor go nowhere.

Studies show that increasing access to direct cash assistance is one of the most powerful tools to fight poverty. The state says it has a big-picture plan for the giant pile of unused dollars; but critics want to know why the reserve is being raided for other projects.

The block grants come from the federal government every year: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF.

Every year, Nebraska receives $56.6 million. That’s been happening since the mid-1990s. Around 29% of that — or $16 million — is direct cash to poor families to help with basic needs. Sixteen percent goes to job training, and many of the remaining dollars go to child welfare and other programs to help the poor.

Here’s the rub: Right now, Nebraska has $131 million in the TANF rainy day fund — way more than it should, according to the state auditor.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it’s because there just aren’t as many needy families these days.

Questions are being raised over a surplus in Nebraska's TANF fund.

But those who are in the trenches say those needy families are still out there; it’s just that the system is so cumbersome, it’s not worth the effort for $331 a month.

“I’m not taking a $300 a month payment and buying lobster or a new scooter,” said Kjersten Hyberger of Lincoln.

In March, she took a couple of state senators to task over their implication that poor people can’t be trusted and are living a life of luxury with their temporary assistance funds.

“To act as though we would be misspending the funds — quite honestly I wasn’t planning to testify — I was offended to be in a room. You guys don’t know my situation. I don’t look like what you might think a poor, single mother of five looks like,” she said.

Diane Amdor with Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit whose stated mission is to “fight for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans, says working families are struggling.

“You can work a full-time job and still not be able to make ends meet in Nebraska,” she said.

The notion that families seeking assistance aren’t willing to work for what they have doesn’t reflect reality, she said.

“Will they spend it on lobster? Will they spend it on scooters or drugs and alcohol? These comments and stereotypes have been around for decades at this point. They have been studied and then have been debunked,” Amdor said. “The things people spend this money on are housing, food, diapers, and clothing.”

For its part, Nebraska DHHS hasn’t been very forthcoming on plans for the $131 million rainy-day fund. That’s why the agency has been opposed to any changes in TANF spending, arguing they’re working on other programs for the poor that will eat into the surplus.

Andrew Keck, the deputy director of finance for Nebraska DHHS, said during a March hearing that the agency has a plan for all the programs.

When State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh asked at the time what that plan was, he said: “It’s currently under review.”

Days ago, 6 News again asked for a copy of the plan from Nebraska DHHS; we were told it has yet to be finalized.

Nebraska Appleseed believes those other programs in development can definitely help, but only if the immediate basic needs of poor families are met first.

“Direct cash assistance goes upstream, making sure the lowest income families have the resources they need to take care of themselves,” Amdor said.

Anger spilled onto the Unicam floor earlier Wednesday as some of the same senators who had proposed changes to the surplus to get more money into the pockets of the lowest-income Nebraskans found out plans of other senators who intended to raid that surplus for other projects.