Think tank finds $732 million for Tennessee’s poor is unused


A woman walks a girl to school in Memphis.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has amassed more than $732 million in grant money intended to help poor working families with no plan for how to spend it, according to the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

The state receives $190.9 million annually through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but last year spent just $71.1 million of that money, the conservative think tank said in a recent report.

Beacon Center Executive Vice President Stephanie Whitt told The Tennessean if the state continues on that trajectory it will soon have over $1 billion in unused money that is intended to help low-income working families with temporary cash assistance, transportation, child care, job training and other support services.

“Our concern is that is a lot money to have sitting there, especially when we have people we can help,” said Whitt, who worked for the Tennessee Department of Human Services as an assistant commissioner between 2015 and 2017.

Questioned about the surplus, Human Services spokesman Sky Arnold said the department “has chosen to take a careful, fiscally responsible and strategic approach to utilize these funds to strengthen Tennessee families.”

Asked whether Gov. Bill Lee had concerns about the unused money, spokeswoman Laine Arnold said that the surplus provides a cushion for a potential future economic downturn, when there could be even more needy families.

According to U.S. Census data, Tennessee’s 16.7% poverty rate is above the national average. The rate is even higher for children, 28% of whom are living in poverty.

The block grant funds have significantly more flexibility than other federal entitlement money, and Beacon suggests Tennessee use the funds to create innovative programs.

Whitt said using the money to help low income families with transportation and childcare could help parents grow their incomes and maintain jobs.

“If we don’t come up with some type of plan, then we probably shouldn’t continue getting $190 million each year,” Whitt said.

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