Refugee programs and Utah: How effective are federal grants?

Story and photos by ALAYNIA WINTER

What is the largest problem refugee organizations face?

Short Answer: It’s funding.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded and state administered financial assistance program for low-income families with dependent children and pregnant women during their last three months of pregnancy. TANF provides short term financial assistance and aids recipients in finding jobs that will allow them to support themselves.

In 1996, TANF replaced older welfare programs. Today, TANF provides annual grants to all U.S. states. The funds are used to pay for benefits and services distributed by the states.

According to The Department of Workforce Services 2016 report, the majority of refugee services are federally funded through the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the TANF program (with the exception of $200,000 provided by the State of Utah).


The Refugee Education and Training Center for the Refugee Services Office is located at 250 W. 3900 South in Salt Lake City.

Currently, Utah’s Refugee Services Office administers approximately $4.3 million from TANF and $8.9 million from ORR for refugee services in Utah. Health services receives over $3 million and case management is allocated over $2 million. Skills and employment training and youth services respectively receive approximately $3 million.

Many critics of welfare programs speculate there are better ways to spend and distribute the federal assistance money.

The 1996 welfare reform act, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, completely changed the concept of welfare. States have control over how and where TANF money is spent.

According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB), this money has not been used well. A 2015 fiscal study on TANF funds reported “34% of funds were going to causes not related to family and youth assistance.” The 34% of funding was labeled “other programs.”

In some instances, TANF money can go to a free and public workshop on improving marriages, or a health profession education grant for low-income students at a public high school. One doesn’t necessarily have to be financially “needy” to participate in public welfare programs such as these. The long-term societal benefits and changes can be difficult to measure; however, the money does seem to be going toward refugee programming and public programming in the “other programs” category.


An “I Am A Refugee” banner in front of the Refugee Services Office building.

Regarding how refugee TANF money is spent, “The caseload has grown. So, the bigger the load, the more time you spend putting out fires,” said Gerald Brown, Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director for the Refugee Services Office.

The current administration’s decision to cut funding and the looming uncertainty of the future for many refugee organizations in a time with a historically high number of refugees spurs much debate.

According to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the U.S. government plans to cap the number of refugees from around the world at 45,000 in FY 2018. That is the lowest level since 1980.

Refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. are worried about this drastic reduction. This news brings an inevitable slash in budget as well. Refugee organizations had been pushing the Trump administration to set next year’s refugee cap to at least 75,000, and said this diminution would force many to close their doors or lose valuable programs.

As Utah philanthropist Pamela J. Atkinson, of the Pamela J. Atkinson Foundation said, “Refugees are people who, rather than give up or give in, have chosen to take the higher and harder road and are grateful for the generosity of strangers who reached out with a willing and helping hand.”

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