This story is part of a series, published in The Reader and on, which spotlights the experiences of low-income, working families in Omaha. This article is also part of a larger series about inequity in Omaha, titled “(DIS)Invested.”

Every month in 2020, an average of 1,078 Nebraskans who couldn’t afford basic necessities applied to get direct cash assistance through the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

And every month, an average of 971 of those applications were denied by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). That’s just more than 90%.

“It’s a messed-up system,” said Tanya Gifford, executive director of Lift Up Sarpy County, a nonprofit supporting underserved community members. “We make it so difficult for people to get out of the [state benefit] system — or even get into it.”

Behind every one of those denied applications is the story of a struggling family that isn’t getting the help they desperately need, Gifford said. The household incomes of these families, which must have at least one dependent aged 18 or younger to be eligible, are often too high for TANF benefits, called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) in Nebraska — but, due to their unique situations, not high enough to make ends meet.

Families in need struggle to navigate what Tanya Gifford, executive director of the nonprofit Lift Up Sarpy County, calls “a messed-up system” — and most of the time, their applications are rejected. Photo courtesy of Tanya Gifford.

Gifford has worked with a mom of three, for example, who temporarily moved herself and her children in with her mom after her kids’ dad was incarcerated and they couldn’t afford their rental house. Hoping to get the family back on their feet, the mom applied for TANF. But DHHS didn’t accept her application because they had to factor her mother’s income into the household earnings which, combined with her income, exceeded what the DHHS considers the monthly need for a family of five: $1,161 per month, or $13,932 per year. Had her application been accepted, the mom would have gotten up to $639 in assistance each month, or $7,668 in a year.

Gifford also recalled a family in which the father, a scientist, made decent money. But after COVID-19 hit the household and caused him to miss six weeks of work, he applied for TANF and was denied because his hourly wage exceeded the income level, despite the fact that he was supporting three generations on one income.

“Assistance program applications are completely black and white,” said Gifford, who has instructed parents who are given a raise to tell their employers they don’t want it, so they remain eligible for public benefits. “It’s a toggle yes or no, put the number in a box. There’s no chance to tell your story.”

Not having a job can pose a barrier, too. Celeste Akers, who works in community services at the Nebraska Medicine Department of Psychiatry, said parents must prove they’re seeking work or receiving job training or education to qualify, unless they’re too disabled to work. Single parents in this situation struggle to find — and pay for — child care and transportation.

Other families have trouble applying in the first place, according to Akers, especially since DHHS no longer assigns caseworkers to help people apply for public benefits, unless they fall into specific “high needs” groups, such as adults with developmental disabilities.

So what happens to the money that’s not going to families?

According to a 2020 TANF issue brief from Voices for Children in Nebraska, “the state has saved nearly $79.8 million in federal TANF funds for a rainy day.” The story is similar in other states. According to a viral ProPublica story published in December 2021, U.S. states are “hoarding” a whopping $5.2 billion total in unspent TANF funds.

DHHS says these funds must eventually be used to help families. Yet, right now, parents like the mom of three with whom Gifford worked can’t afford child care or a place to live. The money that could transform their lives is withheld by bureaucracy and red tape.

“We’re just spinning the wheel and never helping [families] get out of [challenging] situations,” Gifford said. “We build them up for failure.”

From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).

From Nov. 2020 - Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska's LGBTQ+ community. She originally...

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