Preserving the Safety Net

The Problem

Today, more than 800,000 residents of Massachusetts, primarily children, disabled people and seniors, receive transitional assistance of some kind. These individuals struggle to make ends meet and desperately need our help to ensure their well-being. Thousands more who are eligible for benefits do not even apply -- out of lack of knowledge about the programs, fear of being stigmatized or difficulty in accessing these benefits they need.

There has been significant hype – and, unfortunately, legislative grandstanding – around welfare fraud and abuse.

Let’s get clear about the facts:

  • Currently, cash assistance for recipients who can work is limited to two years. Recipients know from the beginning that they have to find work.
  • Over 41% of the parents receiving cash assistance did not complete high school or a GED.  Over 32% have a high school diploma and no more.  11% have a GED and no more.
  • And yet, the state has cut job training and education for transitional assistance recipients over the past 10 years by 80%.
  • Nearly two-thirds of transitional assistance recipients in Massachusetts are children.
  • The average monthly welfare benefit is $456 and it has lost almost half its value to inflation since 1988.  The average SNAP benefit provides another $125.   More than half of recipients don’t get a housing subsidy and struggle to pay private rent. No one on benefits lives a princely life.
  • The audit report that attacked the Department of Transitional Assistance actually confirms the agency’s success at ensuring program integrity-- over 99.99% of the funds issued by DTA were spent properly, and 99.98% of the recipients were eligible to receive benefits.

You can read more about Transitional Assistance here in Massachusetts here.

Over the past two years, we have seen a series of votes in the State Legislature that can only be called an assault on the poor. Over and over again, one chamber or the other has taken a vote that makes it more difficult for low income people to receive the benefits to which they are entitled: Photo ID requirements for EBT cards; imposing work requirements on severely disabled parents; requiring destitute applicants to prove they have looked for work before getting benefits; raising the work requirement age from 60 to 66; forcing pregnant women in their last  trimester to look for work.

Many particularly onerous conditions are part of the Senate’s “Comprehensive Welfare Reform” bill (SB 1805).  Our colleagues at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute have completed a thorough analysis that can be read here

Now the House takes up the issue of welfare reform.  Photo ID for EBT cards – useless in the face of fraud – is already a matter of law so won’t be addressed.  But other, equally onerous, provisions of the Senate bill will certainly be taken up.

The Solution

Support real welfare reform which includes education, training and help with transportation. Don’t create more stigma. Don’t put more road blocks in the way

Pathways to Work and Financial Stability

  • Promote participation in education, training and job development activities leading to sustainable employment.  Increase recipients’ access to education, training, and employment programs, including those that integrate adult education with vocational skills training. Establish effective programs that include on-the-job training, internships including paid internships at state agencies, paid work study for college participants, coaching and support for recipients in college to ensure successful completion, case management, job placement and retention for up to two years.  Allow participants to meet the welfare work requirement through participation in education and training beyond the current 12- month limit.
  • Conduct individualized employability assessments to identify and address barriers to employment. Designate experienced entities to administer assessments, prepare recipients’ economic development plans, and connect recipients with programs and services best suited to their needs.  Protect families with unaddressed barriers.
  • Support the transition to paid work.  Provide transportation assistance so recipients can get to training and work.  Simplify rather than increase the frequency and means of verifying job search, to lessen the burden on recipients and DTA.  Ease the “cliff effect” by raising the amount parents can earn before losing eligibility for benefits.
  • Promote financial stability.  Eliminate asset limits and modify lump sum disqualification rules so families can build resources to weather financial storms, own a reliable car, plan for the future, and move off assistance.  Set aside $148.50/month for TAFDC families in shelter instead of lowering their grants by that amount, so they can have the money needed to move out of shelter.  Support vulnerable teens by providing them with financial assistance and shelter at any stage of pregnancy. 

Investments in Program Integrity

  • Modernize management practices.  Make better use of technology to improve agency accountability, customer service, and program outcomes.  Use computerized data matches with cost-effective, reliable data sources to facilitate the application process and verify eligibility for benefits.  Improve record keeping with electronic document imaging
Where Do We Stand

The Senate passed a particularly onerous bill in June, without warning.  The House followed on November 6.  However, the advocacy coalition and non-leadership progressives were ready.  An intrepid but sizable band of representatives, led by Marjorie Decker, got key changes in to the bill which then headed to conference committee.

Progressives managed to ensure Representative Kay Khan (D - Newton) and Senator Mike Barrett (D - Lexington) seats on the committee but opposition to our changes was intense.  The legislative session ended without any resolution but leadership has vowed to have a bill ready for final passage in early January.  We continue to lobby hard and to make sure every legislator understands that our members stand in opposition to their Assault on the Poor.

 

 

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