Nebraska TANF spending plan raising concerns among nonprofit, lawmakers

Watchdog group Nebraska Appleseed: “Matter of dignity and autonomy”
Nebraska has laid out its plans to put TANF funds to use.
Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 5:24 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - A 6 On Your Side Investigation surrounds new questions over a long-delayed plan by the state to spend millions in unused funds to help Nebraskans below the poverty line. One watchdog group is wondering whether the plan is the most effective way to help.

Each year, Nebraska receives $56.6 million from the federal government in block grants as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. This is direct cash going to the poorest of the poor to help them meet basic needs.

Nebraska only sends $16 million in direct cash to those below the poverty line. Other dollars go to other services like job training and child welfare. But Nebraska doesn’t come close to spending it all -- all told, $126 million in rainy-day dollars -- so much that the state auditor red-flagged the practice of saving it instead of spending it.

Officials with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services say there aren’t as many needy families these days. But those who work with low-income families every day say the system is so cumbersome. While many more get rejected, the program seems to be designed to keep them from the cash -- and that also goes for DHHS’s list of new programs.

“It’s a matter of dignity and autonomy for family members,” said Diane Amdor with Nebraska Appleseed. “What is our state saying when it says we’ll fund this nonprofit organization to provide mentorship to your child, but we won’t help you get to the gas money you need to drive your child there? We won’t provide you the flexible spending to allow you to buy your kid a new pair of pants to visit the mentor. We’ll provide you parenting classes but we won’t help you make sure that you have at least an income of 50% of the federal poverty level, which is still an extreme level of poverty.”

Some of the new proposals that DHHS would put the excess TANF money toward include the following:

  • Food bank services will offer funds to Nebraska food banks coordinating with pantries, schools, churches, and other organizations that supply emergency and supplemental food to children and families in need.
  • Child advocacy centers will provide technical support and help coordinate child abuse investigations and treatment teams.
  • Court-appointed special advocates are highly trained — and screened — volunteers who advocate in court for child victims of neglect or abuse
  • Cedars Home for pregnant and parenting teens supports living arrangements for young parents or pregnant teens younger than age 20 who are unable to live in their homes because of abuse or neglect, or other extenuating circumstances
  • Domestic violence services have preventative programs to help support victims of abuse at home, including their families and even their abusers

DHHS is asking the federal government’s permission to move forward.

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln told 6 News she wonders if these programs fit the definitions since the feds earmarked the dollars as TANF money. She also said the conversation will continue into the new year once the Legislature returns to session, but believes this is a good start having everyone at the table.