TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 paused work requirements for Florida welfare beneficiaries. Now in 2022, those halts on work requirements are gone, but the economic upheaval has continued, with inflation reaching historic highs and solutions still in progress.

The federal poverty level for a family of three is $23,030 before taxes. That number is the annual income for a mom, a dad and a single child to qualify as poor in the United States. For an individual, to count as someone living in poverty, you have to make $13,590 per year or less, before taxes.

While the state’s population, economy, and industries have changed, the welfare benefits have not.

Welfare program history

Florida has controlled the benefits access to impoverished residents since 1994. Called the Family Transition Program, Florida’s FTP was the first state-level welfare reform regarding eligibility and benefits. It predates a national shift to state control by three years.

In 1997, under former President Bill Clinton, a change in federal law turned management of welfare to the states, rather than the U.S. government. As a result, welfare beneficiaries across the country have a patchwork of different rules and regulations to access the help they need, and in some places, a time limit, too.

2021 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Florida DCF, underscores how the federal government relies on the states to pick who gets assistance.

“Although the federal government funds SNAP benefits, it relies on the states to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, to administer those benefits and to have appropriate quality control processes in place,” USDOJ said about the settlement.

It has done so since July 1997, U.S. Congress completely restructured the current welfare system, replacing the one set up by the Social Security Act of 1935.

The Personal Responsibility and Opportunity to Work Act passed under Clinton changed a New Deal program, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and renamed it to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program still gives cash assistance to poor families through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but now there are more restrictions, more requirements, and fewer people, proportionally, who receive benefits.

Families in need are able to get some help from the state and federal governments, through two programs. The first is temporary, called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

To qualify for TANF, more commonly known as welfare, you have to be a U.S. citizen, legal alien or qualified alien. You also have to be unemployed, underemployed, or have low or very low income.

If you check all of those boxes, you still have to be pregnant, be younger than 18 years old and the head of your household, or have a child who is 18 years old or younger.

Since the eligibility requirements were placed in the management of the states, each one has its own unique rules for determining final eligibility and qualification. Nationally, PRWORA set the limit to receive welfare benefits to five years.

The state of Florida set its limit to four years.

Florida’s welfare rules

According to the Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, Florida families must have little or no income in order to get benefits from TANF. The organization said “very few families meet that criterion.” They said one factor affecting benefit amounts is that the state “Legislature has not updated benefit payments for the program in three decades.”

In Florida, if you meet all requirements, you can expect benefits to come from a program called ACCESS Florida, run by the state’s Department of Children and Families. If you are approved for benefits, you can get up to $3,636 per year, based on the state’s maximum benefit of $303 per month.

You can still qualify for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, in addition to the cash assistance from TANF. Like many states, Florida requires you to work to receive benefits, and not just putting the work in to file the necessary paperwork.

The Sunshine State requires residents to work in order to qualify for TANF benefits. If you’re a minor head of household, you still need to work, even if you’re in school. That means you’re expected to work up to 40 hours per week. The state is prevented from requiring beneficiaries to work more than 40 hours a week to get benefits.

Additionally, residents with felony drug trafficking convictions are ineligible to receive any state assistance, for welfare or food stamps, according to state law. The FPI said this particular policy decision “had already cost Florida more than $70 million due to high re-arrest rates,” by 2017, due to the lack of support for those exiting the correctional system.

Florida also has additional statutes in place that block a family from receiving benefits, even if only one family member does not abide by state restrictions or requirements to get them.

Who receives benefits

As of August 2022, there were 50,120 TANF clients in Florida, an 8.8% increase. State data shows the number of TANF clients across Florida is increasing and has been for months. There were 28,935 TANF Families in Florida that month, according to data from DCF, a 3.9% increase from the month before.

If your household is on the poverty line and makes less than $22,000 per year for a family of three, DCF only gives you $3,600 of assistance from TANF for a single year, split into just over $300 per month.

To put that in perspective, the median monthly income in Florida is roughly $4,640 before taxes, according to the latest data from the U.S. government.

The number of TANF beneficiaries receiving welfare funds in Florida has been on the rise since April. In the Tampa Bay area, almost every county has seen the numbers increase, either by number of families or number of clients.

LocationTANF Clients April 2022 TANF Families April 2022 TANF Clients August 2022 TANF Families August 2022
State of Florida39,39725,26350,12028,935
Citrus County455327473348
Hardee County1107311174
Hernando County656469680477
Highlands County333206388241
Hillsborough County3,4632,2513,9712,389
Manatee County828577816570
Pasco County1,3519051,319916
Pinellas County2,1291,5082,1541,487
Polk County2,5651,6002,7791,673
Sarasota County568414606413
(Source: Florida Department of Children and Families)

Beneficiary families include orphans and children without adults at home.

Minor households, those led by juveniles, the state’s work requirements are complicated by federal labor laws. Those ages 14 to 15 can only work a set number of hours, and only during certain hours. At 16 to 17, workers can have unlimited hours except in jobs with hazardous conditions. Upon becoming an adult at 18, all limitations are removed.

The state of Florida had 22,028 “No Parent Families” receiving TANF benefits, as of March 2022.

Without the SNAP program’s federal funds and state-level intervention to distribute them, almost 3 million Floridians would have had less food to put on their table.

LocationSNAP Clients April 2022 SNAP Households April 2022 SNAP Clients July 2022 SNAP Households July 2022
State of Florida2,820,4591,561,1332,872,3401,593,358
Citrus County19,61110,70120,15810,852
Hardee County5,0922,3325,2552,423
Hernando County27,48414,29928,37614,685
Highlands County17,6999,21318,3189,531
Hillsborough County213,240112,567216,052115,118
Manatee County35,16318,09935,23218,185
Pasco County65,09134,78565,08034,851
Pinellas County94,02155,92493,07355,454
Polk County133,74166,093136,89867,500
Sarasota County25,19614,42325,30914,522
(Source: Florida Department of Children and Families)

Even with those benefits, families still struggle, particularly amid record-high inflation levels. To that end, Florida’s government provided 59,000 families with additional funds to prepare for the new school year through specially mailed checks. Administered by DCF, checks were sent to families that receive TANF benefits. Each one contained $450 per child per family.

Among the 50 states, Florida is ranked No. 35 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for overall child well-being in 2022. Breaking down the various factors that gave Florida its overall rank, AECF said Florida was in the bottom for economic well-being, at No. 42, though much higher in terms of education, taking the No. 13 spot.

For health, which was ranked based on exposure to violence, inadequate housing, nutrition, family stress, preventive health care, poverty, and substance abuse, Florida was reached No. 35.

The state was listed as No. 32 for what AECF listed as “Family and Community.”

“Parents struggling with financial hardship have fewer resources available to foster their children’s development and are more prone to face severe stress and depression, which can interfere with effective parenting,” AECF describes. “These findings underscore the importance of two-generation approaches to ending poverty, which address the needs of parents and children at the same time so they can succeed together.”

The AECF report said that as of 2020, Florida had 774,000 children living in poverty, 1,177,000 children in the state with parents lacking secure employment, and 1,537,000 children in house holds with high housing cost burdens. Focusing on education, which is widely considered a key to finding gainful employment and living a successful life, 62% of Florida Fourth Graders were reportedly not proficient in reading, while 69% of Eighth Graders were not proficient in math, and 13% of high schoolers did not graduate on time.

The report also said 8% of the state’s children were living in high-poverty areas.

For the children living in poverty, AECF defined it as a family with two adults and two children where the annual income of the whole household fell below $26,246.

To qualify for federal welfare benefits, a household income must be at most $27,750 for a family of four in 2022. In 2020, the income level was $26,200. While federal poverty guidelines have been increased, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s relief efforts expanded some programs, states still have discretion over qualification.