Families First replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“AFDC”) program in Tennessee.129 Families First works in compliance with the Federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) program to provide cash benefits to needy families with children.130 In order for children and their caretakers to qualify for benefits:
- There must be a deprived child under the age of 18 in the family;
- U.S. citizenship and Tennessee residency must be verified;
- The guardian and child must be related by blood or marriage; and
- The household must satisfy income and asset requirements.
Each family receiving benefits must sign a personal responsibility contract. This contract may include requirements that adults in the household either work or participate in education or training programs for up to 30 hours a week.131 School-age children in the household may be required to attend school.132 Families First will provide free child care if needed for the household members to meet these requirements.133 Families First will also provide transportation assistance to attend school or go to work as needed.134 Work or education requirements may be waived if family members cannot complete them due to disruptions caused by domestic violence or if family members are unable to work due to health problems.135
Families First benefits are limited to eighteen months of continuous benefits, and individuals in the household are limited to five years of lifetime eligibility.136 These time limits do not include receipt of benefits under the old AFDC program. In addition, these time limits can be paused or waived in certain circumstances.137
Persons who apply for and receive Families First benefits are required to assist the Child Support Enforcement Agency with collection of child support.138 In most cases, this requirement includes identifying possible parents of a child, providing information about the absent parent, and participating in court hearings.139 However, if the absent parent has been abusive to the person who receives benefits, these requirements may be waived.
Applications for Families First benefits are made at the local Department of Human Services (“DHS”) office. To receive benefits, an applicant must provide DHS with a great deal of information about the household and must tell DHS when that information changes. If applicants report changes to DHS, it is a good idea to do so in writing and keep a copy or have a witness and get a receipt if information is dropped off at a DHS office. TennCare (Medicaid) benefits automatically come with Families First benefits.
A recipient may appeal any decision by DHS about eligibility or the amount of benefits if the decision does not seem to be correct. Recipients should carefully read any notice for appeal deadlines and procedures. After an appeal is requested, a hearing will be scheduled at which the applicants can tell their side of the issue and present witnesses or evidence in support. A decision by a hearing officer can be appealed to a higher agency level and then to Chancery Court if necessary.
Women, Infants, and Children (“WIC”)
WIC is a federally funded program that provides supplemental food to indigent pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, as well as to infants and children under the age of five.
In addition to necessary extra food, the program provides nutrition education, health care referrals, and breastfeeding promotion and support. The cash and food vouchers issued to participants can be used to purchase approved food items at any of the participating WIC authorized grocery stores and pharmacies.
To be eligible for WIC, individuals must:
- be Tennessee state residents,
- meet the applicable gross income guidelines, and
- be at nutritional or medical risk.
The contact information for WIC is:
1 800-DIAL-WIC (1-800-342-5942)
Knoxville Health Department
140 Dameron Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37917
Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit (“EITC”) is a special tax benefit for people who work full or part time.140 People who qualify will either owe less tax or receive a larger refund than they would without it. Even a worker who does not have to pay income tax can still get the credit and a refund. However, a worker must file a federal tax return to receive the credit.
Many workers who would be eligible for this tax credit do not file the return needed to claim it. Workers can call 1-800-829-1040 for free help with how to file a tax return. The EITC does not affect the amount of benefits received under food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, TennCare, or subsidized housing.
A worker does not have to wait for a tax return to be filed to begin collecting the credit. There is an advance payment option. A W-5 form can be filed with the employer, and 60% of the credit can be received throughout the year in paychecks. A tax return must then be filed, and the rest of the tax credit would be received after the worker files the return. This option should probably not be used for those who have more than one job, have a spouse who also works, will get married during the year, or will increase their earned income significantly during the year.
Food stamps (“SNAP”) are available to low-income people no matter what their age or health. The food stamp program issues benefits to a household141 (as defined by the program) through a Benefit Security Card or “EBT” card that allows the funds to be accessed electronically. To qualify for food stamps, the household’s income and resources must be under federal limits. The income amount varies with the size of the household. Countable financial resources (as defined by program rules) may not be greater than $2,000 for most households or $3,250 if a person in the household is disabled or at least 60 years of age. There are many assets not counted as financial resources. Those assets include, but are not limited to, the applicant’s current residence, income-producing property, real estate that is up for sale, personal property, retirement accounts, vehicles with equity value under $1,500, and any veteran’s education benefits142 received by an applicant. Countable assets include cash on hand, money in checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, property other than the resident’s
home not up for sale, and lump-sum payments.
To receive food stamps, one must apply at the county Department of Human Services (“DHS”) office and give the required information, including citizenship or immigration status and Social Security number.143 Someone receiving benefits must report information about certain changes in the household and must register for work unless exempt. Reasons for exemption include being under age 18 or over age 59, having a disability, or taking care of young children. In order to determine eligibility for the program, DHS caseworkers may also ask for documentation such as birth certificates, check stubs, bank statements, utility bills, rent receipts, tax returns, and insurance policies.
Someone who applies and qualifies for food stamps will be notified by mail within 45 days of the date of the application. Emergency food stamps are available within seven days144 for those who have less than $100 in liquid resources and less than $150 in countable gross monthly income, a combined gross income and liquid resources totaling less than the applicant’s housing costs, or $100 or less in liquid resources if the applicant is a migrant or seasonal farmer.145
There are limits to the amount of time some people can receive food stamps. There is no limit on the length of time persons employed 20 or more hours per week can receive food stamps. Able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 60 who have no dependents and who are not employed at least 20 hours per week can receive food stamps for only three months in a three-year period. The State of Tennessee can apply to have this three-month time limit removed in some counties where unemployment is high. Individuals not employed 20 hours or more per week who are between the ages of 18 and 60 should ask their local DHS office whether the three-month time limit applies to them. There are a number of exemptions that would allow longer periods of eligibility. There are periodic recertification requirements for all who received benefits; a household will be assigned the longest certification period possible based on its circumstances. Certifications must last for at least three months146 but may not extend beyond one year.
If the applicant is residing in a shelter for battered women and children, there are different requirements to qualify for food stamp benefits. The shelter must meet the definition as set out by the DHS Policy Manual.147 Residents of a shelter for battered women and children are eligible to apply as a separate household from the household containing the person who subjected them to abuse and are also exempt from the prohibition against participation in more than one county a month. When determining expenses for residents of shelters for battered women and children, only expenses for which the applicants are responsible can be deducted.
Income and resources available to the applicants’ former household will not be considered, and these include resources held jointly by an applicant and her or his former household.148 Additionally, these households are limited to a one-month certification period due to the typically short time that applicants stay in such facilities.149
Supplemental Security Income
Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”) benefits are available to persons who are disabled or age 65 or older and lack sufficient income or resources.150 The program allocates benefits to people who have not worked enough to be fully covered by the Social Security disability or retirement benefits.151 If a person is unable to perform full-time work for at least one year, he or she is considered disabled. A child is disabled if the child is unable to perform activities that children the same age can typically perform.
To receive SSI benefits, individuals apply at the local Social Security office and must meet the income and resource standards. Depending on the amount of the individual’s and spouse’s income, if applicable, the amount of benefits will vary. Moreover, a disabled person who was previously denied SSI benefits because of an abusive spouse’s income may be eligible for benefits if the abuser is no longer in the household. Alternatively, the amount of benefits available for a person who is already eligible may increase.
Should an application for SSI benefits be turned down, the applicant can appeal and request reconsideration. An appeal is usually better than a new application because benefits are paid only from the date of the application. In the event that an application is denied a second time, the next appeal level is before an administrative law judge. An attorney will generally take these cases on a contingent-fee basis, meaning that the attorney is paid out of back pay only if the client wins.
Generally, SSI benefits cannot be obtained quickly. If the application is denied and the applicant appeals, it could take as long as one to two years before the applicant receives benefits.
Unemployment Compensation Benefits
Unemployment compensation benefits are generally available for workers who have quit with good cause connected to the work or who have been laid off or fired for reasons other than misconduct. Repeated absences from work due to domestic abuse are not considered misconduct, so if an employee is fired for this reason, she or he would most likely qualify for benefits.
If someone applies for unemployment compensation benefits and is turned down, an appeal can be requested. Similarly, if benefits are approved, the employer can appeal. An appeal from the initial decision must be made within 15 days from the date of the decision. A hearing is then scheduled before an appeals referee. If a case is appealed to the Commissioner’s designee, another hearing will be held only if either side has new evidence to present and has good reason that the evidence was not presented before the Appeals Tribunal. If another hearing is not held, the Commissioner’s designee will make a decision based on the record and transcript of the Appeals Tribunal hearing.
Tennessee residents can call 2-1-1 for information about specific community assistance in their local areas (such as the YWCA and church organizations and programs). This number will connect residents to a United Way representative who can provide further information.
129 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104 (2012).
130 Tennessee Department of Human Services, Families First/TANF, available at
131 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104(h)(2)(A) (2012).
132 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104(g)(9)(B) (2012).
133 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104(h)(2)(D) (2012).
135 Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1240-01-49-.04.
136 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104(d)(1) (2012).
137 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-104(d)(3) (2012).
138 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-3-124(e)(1)(A) (2012).
140 Tennessee Department of Human Services, Earned Income Credit, available at
141 Tennessee Department of Human Services, Food Stamp Online Policy Manual, Household Concept, available at http://tn.gov/humanserv/adfam/fs_olm/2.0%20Household%20Concept.htm.
142 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-5-315 (2012).
143 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-5-307 (2012).
144 The application would need to be completed on or before the fourth calendar day to ensure that the benefits would be received by the seventh calendar day.
145 Tenn. Rules of DHS Family Assistance Div. § 1240-1-5-04 (a997).
146 Except as discussed in Tenn. Rules of DHS Family Assistance Div. § 1240-1-7-.01(2)-(b).
147 Department of Human Services Food Stamp Online Policy Manuel, Special Living Arrangements: Shelters for Battered Women and Children, available at http://tn.gov/humanserv/adfam/fs_olm/41.3%20Shelters%20for%20
148 Tenn. Rules of DHS Family Assistance Div. § 1240-1-4 (1997).
149 Tenn. Rules of DHS Family Assistance Div. § 1240-1-7 (1997).
150 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-2-203 (2012).
151 Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-4-1103 (2012).