Economists predict spike in cash assistance program
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Another sign of the pandemic's economic toll.

The coronavirus pandemic is resulting in a surge in the number of Floridians seeking help from a state program that provides cash assistance to needy families, driving up projected costs of the program by $35 million, a panel of economists said this week.

Looking at increased enrollment over the past few months, economists projected that 87,000 people will receive cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program this fiscal year, a jump of 26,172 people from a previous forecast.

The increase in people will push the cost of the so-called TANF program up by $35 million from the previous estimate to about $159 million during the budget year that ends June 30, 2021.

The spike is another sign of the economic toll that the coronavirus pandemic is having on many residents, safety-net programs and the state budget.

Florida’s unemployment rate rocketed up to 14.5% in May after the state initially closed down or restricted businesses because of the pandemic, although Gov. Ron DeSantis is predicting that the June unemployment rate should drop when numbers are announced on Friday.

Enrollment in Medicaid, the safety-net health care program, grew by nearly 2% in June over the prior month, with the program providing health coverage to more than 4.1 million poor, elderly and disabled people.

Economists are meeting over the summer to come up with new forecasts that will be used to draw up a three-year financial outlook. The results could help determine whether the Legislature will have to take further actions to balance the budget before the 2021 Legislative Session, which starts in March.

The economists also agreed this week that higher enrollment and costs in TANF will take several years to gradually slide back to pre-pandemic levels. The estimates projected that nearly 67,000 people will be enrolled in the program in the 2025-2026 fiscal year.

Amy Baker, who leads the economists and is coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, said economists needed to project the higher caseloads over the next few years based on what occurred during the major recession more than a decade ago.

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