LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
$732 million - that's how much the state of Tennessee has left unspent in federal funds for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. That's $200 million more than the next highest state, New York. A recent report from a conservative think tank in Tennessee broke the news. Now working parents and nonprofits across the state who could have used the money are filing serious complaints while the State House is scrambling to respond.
Natalie Allison, who reports on state politics for the Tennessean, has been following the story, and she joins us now. Welcome.
NATALIE ALLISON: Thanks for having me on, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how did the state reach this point? Your reporting says that some have justified it as a saving for a rainy day. But this seems drastic for a rainy day. That's a lot of money.
ALLISON: Yeah. The how is something we at the Tennessean are still trying to get to the bottom of. What we know is that there was a time when Tennessee was spending almost all of its roughly $190 million annual TANF block grant and that, in recent years - really, in 2016 - that spending dropped drastically. And it's only been in the last several years that our reserve levels have shot up to this degree that's really the highest in the nation right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Could you remind us what sorts of people and programs TANF supports?
ALLISON: So the TANF program was created by the federal government in 1996, and its goal is to help poor, working people find jobs, keep their families together, allow their children to live in their homes. So that could mean helping them pay for child care so they can hold down a job or transportation so they can have a job, even parenting classes - things, essentially, that, in the '90s, the federal government thought would keep family units together and help get people back to work, not have to be on welfare for a long period of time but give them a temporary boost to come out of poverty.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So have all the needs of these families been met? I mean, it seems like they face rainy days on a regular basis that $732 million could help with.
ALLISON: Certainly, and that's the argument that even Republicans now are making now that this has been brought to light because it really wasn't known to many in the legislature, possibly even people in the governor's office, that Tennessee was sitting on this much money. So after a conservative group highlighted this and the Tennessean conducted some extensive reporting and analysis on the issue, we've heard from a number of people who are saying, yes, there are still thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of millions of Tennesseans, who are struggling, who are trying to hold down jobs, who can't do that, who are having trouble paying for transportation costs to get to and from work.
There's organizations and nonprofits that could benefit from TANF money as well. So the state has a program in which it could be doling out some of this money in the form of grants to nonprofits who are also helping people accomplish some of these goals of the TANF program. And what we found is that that hasn't been happening to a great extent. The state has been awarding some of these grants, but some nonprofits have even had their funding cut by the state in recent years as this TANF reserve is growing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's been the response on both sides of the aisle?
ALLISON: This is a rare issue where both Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee are very riled up about this. So usually, it's one or the other, one side fighting the other. But this is a case in which we have Republicans and Democrats who have convened for this - they call it a working group - to study the issue, to figure out what can be done. And now, there is going to be disagreement, probably, on how this money could best be spent. Certainly, Democrats have said something should be done immediately. And while some Republicans have that view as well, many of them are saying, yes, we should do something, but we're going to take a slower approach. We're going to study the issue, figure out how we got here and really determine where the needs lie the most.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if they're going to sit and try and figure all this out, how quickly do you think the money will be disbursed?
ALLISON: That's the question. What's interesting is that after a month of saying they did not have a plan, the Department of Human Services, who us reporters at the Tennessean have been, you know, daily inquiring with about the status, after a month of them saying they didn't have a plan for how to spend this TANF money, this past week on Tuesday, the department sort of sends out this press release and just drops this plan suddenly to spend about $200 million of this TANF reserve. They also announced they're going to start limiting the reserve size to $342 million. Which, seemed very abrupt. It seemed very out of nowhere. For weeks, they've been saying they didn't have a plan in place.
That announcement by DHS was also met with outrage by the Republicans and Democrats in the legislature who said they weren't consulted about it. So now Tennessee is sort of in the spot where DHS finally took action, but they're being criticized for really doing too little, too late and acting too fast, but also not fast enough.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's reporter Natalie Allison. Thanks for speaking with us.
ALLISON: Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.