Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Windham, commented during a 2017 House debate while Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, listened. Keith M. Phaneuf /

Connecticut is poised to extend its time limit for families receiving welfare cash assistance, should a legislative proposal make it through the final flurry of debate and votes at the General Assembly over the next two weeks.

The state’s 21-month lifetime limit on cash assistance is second-shortest among the 50 states, surpassed only by Arizona’s 12-month limit. In most states, welfare cash assistance is available to families in need for up to five years.

“The problem with the whole 21-months rule has to do with trying to make sure people have enough time to stabilize their difficult economic situations,” said Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Windham, who has led a years-long legislative effort to lengthen the time limits for temporary family assistance.

“Having the second-worst social safety net in the entire country isn’t very helpful to people here,” Johnson said.

Originally included in House Bill 6665, the proposal would extend the time limit for cash assistance to 36 months. It also would raise income and asset limits that currently disqualify a family from receiving benefits. Johnson said she anticipates the language will be incorporated into broader budget legislation, and she doesn’t expect H.B. 6665 to reach a vote.

The proposed extension could add as much as $8 million to the program’s price tag over the next two years. Connecticut spent $27 million on cash assistance in 2021.

But like all of this session’s many legislative proposals with a price tag, the extension must be worked into a budget with strict spending limits.

“The fiscal guardrails are preventing us from spending more than we want,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said Wednesday. “But those are also dollars that came in this year that may not be there next year.”

‘From financial insecurity to financial stability’

Connecticut’s cash assistance time limit currently applies to families with “an employable adult” whose income is less than the federal poverty level and who have $3,000 or less in other assets. For a family of three living in one of the state’s urban areas, assistance is around $500 a month

The adult in the family must be working or seeking employment during the allotted timeframe with the expectation that they become self-sufficient.

But there’s been growing recognition, in the years since the COVID-19 lockdown, that working parents of young children often need support beyond what a minimum wage affords. Employers have urged the state to fund child care and to support housing developments for workers who they say can no longer afford to live in the state.

State-sponsored workforce development programs are increasingly including “wraparound services,” such as transportation and rent assistance, to keep people from dropping out.

“It is difficult at best to jump from financial insecurity to financial stability,” said Liz Fraser, a researcher with the Connecticut Association for Human Services who recently interviewed several parents eligible for or receiving welfare cash assistance. 

“Under-resourced families lead complicated lives,” Fraser said, speaking at a recent press conference at the Capitol. “As parents navigate towards financial security, any one obstacle or barrier will set the family back and often circumvent their past progress.”

Connecticut receives $266 million annually in a federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and it contributes additional state funding to the program. In 2021, the state spent a total of $476 million in state and federal funds on TANF, about 6% of which went toward cash assistance (far below the national average of 23%).

The balance of Connecticut’s TANF program funding, about $450 million, typically goes toward a range of programs such as child care, job assistance, education, parenting programs and administration costs. 

According to the TANF website, TANF funding can be used to:

  • Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives
  • End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage
  • Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families

Along with many states, Connecticut suspended the time limits for cash assistance during COVID. Proponents of the legislation now want to make the longer timeframe more permanent.

Anti-poverty groups say allowing parents to save more of their earnings while remaining on cash assistance offers stability, which helps the economy more broadly.

“It’s not better for any of us to have people who are struggling,” said Nancy Coughlin, chief executive of nonprofit service organization Person-to-Person in Darien. “When people are struggling, they’re left out of the economy.”

Erica covers economic development for CT Mirror. Before moving to Connecticut to join the staff she worked in Los Angeles for public radio’s Marketplace and, before that, for the Wall Street Journal's L.A. bureau. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN, graduated from Haverford College and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Southern California.