Monday, April 11, 2016

Alarms Sound for Poor Families in the Commonwealth
by Georgia Mattison

By making several alarming changes this March the Department of Transitional Assistance DTA will make Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) in Massachusetts even harder to access. Meanwhile, the TAFDC caseload is shrinking significantly every month.

First, DTA plans to require the 1,100 households that are exempt from the work requirement because they take care of a disabled parent or grandparent or sibling, to put their family member in a nursing home in order to comply with the work requirement. Deborah Harris from the Massachusetts Law Reform institute in a letter to legislators wrote: “The requirement that a caregiver should put her disabled relative in a nursing home is cruel and irresponsible.”

Furthermore, nursing homes cost the Commonwealth more in one month than the average TAFDC grant for a year. If a caregiver refuses to put her disabled relative in a nursing home, she loses the benefit for her and her children.

The second alarming change in March will be a stricter disability standard for exemption from the work requirement which will affect 2,200 households.

 The third and worst major change will be the pre-application work search requirement which is predicted to keep an estimated 50-80% of applicants from accessing TAFDC. Currently the caseload is approximately 35,000 households according to the DTA website. The program is losing 3-4,000 households a month. The Welfare coalition attributes this alarming decline to routine denial of appeals once a 24 month time limit has been reached, and the uptick in the application of sanctions.

The Welfare Coalition cannot get statistics or information on these appeals and sanctions. We are going up the legal chain to try to get this public information released. And the continuing problems with the new DTA access system have put both TAFDC and SNAP (Food Stamps) under threat of serious caseload declines. This is all happening even before the new requirements are implemented! The Coalition has been meeting weekly to work against this tide of shameful effort to deny families the benefit they deserve.

The Welfare Coalition has expanded its membership to advocacy groups for the disabled and the elderly. We have been meeting with legislators since last August to file a bill to eliminate the new disabled standard and pre-application work requirement from the welfare reform law passed last year. A bill is due out of the Senate soon. The caretaker change which is a policy rather than a regulation or a law has been a subject of meetings with legislators and the DTA Commissioner. DTA has now delayed the caregiver exemption change until next October.

DTA has also announced a delay until next December of the drastic change in the Disability Standard till next December. But a new DTA plan just announced is to deny the benefits severely disabled parents receiving Supplemental Social Security Income SSI the TAFDC benefits they are receive just for their children. This will terminate benefits to 6900 households by next July. The Coalition will be working with Legislators to block this current proposal.

 As the caseload declines there is a simultaneous uptick in families living in deep poverty in the Commonwealth. Given the unreasonable and systematic denial of benefits, in a year or two, there may be virtually no families in the program. Families will get SNAP, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children’s Program), and Medicaid, but no cash assistance. Currently according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, there are 120,000 households in Massachusetts in deep poverty. Deep poverty is defined as 50% and below of the federal poverty line.

Massachusetts may soon mirror most of the United States with virtually no TAFDC benefit. In 1996 Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act changing the program from a federal entitlement program to a state block grant. Block grants essentially capped participation in the program. SNAP is a federal entitlement; therefore, all applicants who are eligible receive the benefit. For the most part states can do anything they want with this money and they have. The number of families in the United States and Massachusetts has slid to a quarter of the households that were receiving the benefit in 1996 when it was a federal entitlement program. The Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has proposed making SNAP a block grant.)

In the book, “$2 Dollars a day: Living on almost nothing in America,” authors Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer found most of the poor did not believe the TAFDC benefit still existed. The book described a vast pool of people who live in deep poverty, who struggle to survive, find work (often perilous work), and avoid homelessness. Only one in four U.S. jobs can support a family of four. Housing instability is a hallmark among those in deep poverty as housing subsidies are rare.

Georgia Mattison is the PPUF Project Director. She is a member of the Welfare Coalition, the SNAP Coalition and a Governor’s appointee to the Boston DTA Advisory Board.