DC TANF Families Far Below Poverty Line, Even With Uncut Benefits

November 20, 2014

Shortly before the election, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner observed that none of the mayoral candidates had even mentioned “a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress.”

She was referring to the District’s decision to phase out Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to families who’ve received them for a lifetime total of five years. The DC Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut — and for good reasons, as Weiner indicates.

But the cuts have gone forward again. They’re likely to leave more than 6,000 families with no cash assistance whatever come next September — unless the Council and soon-to-be Mayor Bowser agree to change the law.

But what about families whose benefits haven’t been cut? Not much of a safety net for them, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ recent state-by-state update on the benefits shows.

CBPP looks at the maximum cash benefit a single parent with two children can receive. That was $428 in the District when the Center did its analysis.

A provision in the latest Budget Control Act, i.e., the package of legislation that’s paired with the budget proper, provides for a cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year, based on the Consumer Price Index.

That, I’m told, will boost benefits by 1.5% — just making up for what our three-person family’s benefit lost in value due to inflation during the July 2013-14 period.

The family will still have an income at about 26% of the federal poverty line. And it will be considerably worse off than three-person families were when TANF began.

Adjusting for inflation, the maximum benefit for our D.C. family has lost about a third of its real-dollar value. Losses were smaller in more than half the states.

And, as we all know, the cost of living here is higher than in most places. CBPP provides just one measure — the gap between the maximum TANF benefit for three-person families and the fair market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The pre-COLA maximum benefit for our D.C. family is 29.1% of the FMR for the apartment. In other words, the family couldn’t come anywhere near to paying for it, even if it spent its entire benefit on rent.

This is true for families in every state, but the rent shortfall is greater than the District’s in only two — Mississippi and Tennessee. Not, I suppose, states the District would choose as benchmarks.

Rankings of this sort aren’t nearly as relevant as the measures of how woefully inadequate TANF benefits are — and how more woefully in adequate they’ve become over time.

So far as housing is concerned, the maximum for our D.C. family would have covered nearly 44% of the FMR in 2000 — still a very large shortfall, but smaller because the benefit was worth more and rents in our area hadn’t skyrocketed.

Now, it’s true that some TANF families in the District have more cash income than the maximum benefit indicates because our local program exempts a fair amount of earned income when setting benefit levels.

Also true, however, as indicated above, that many families are receiving far less than the maximum. The phase-out alone has left some three-person families with as little as $152 a month.

Most, if not all of the families, however, receive a separate cash-equivalent benefit from SNAP (the food stamp program). Yet the cash value of SNAP benefits still leaves TANF families far below the poverty line.

CBPP shows this by combining the average monthly SNAP benefit for TANF families with the maximum the three-person family can get from TANF. With the two benefits, so defined, our D.C. TANF family was at 54.4% of the FPL in July.

But, says CBPP, this is probably an overstatement for many families because the average SNAP benefit it calculated assumes housing, plus utility costs high enough to qualify families for the maximum.

No such costs for the families in the DC General shelter, most of whom depend on TANF benefits. And lower costs, if any that families can claim if they’re doubled-up with accommodating friends or relatives.

There could be fewer homeless families if the District substantially increased TANF benefits now, as originally proposed, and modified the phase-out to preserve benefits for families who’d otherwise become destitute, even though the parents had done everything they were told to.

These could include families with a parent who’s working, but not able to earn enough to support herself and her kids and those with a parent who isn’t working because jobs she could qualify for are just too scarce.

And then perhaps there are parents who didn’t do everything they were told to because they couldn’t, e.g., those with certain intellectual disabilities or PTSD that caseworkers had failed to identify.

But such exemptions would still leave some families subject to phased-out benefits that would sink them even deeper in poverty than they already are — and less likely to achieve the self-sufficiency that TANF is supposed to promote.

How can you focus on preparing for — or seeking — work when you’re trying to figure out where you and your kids will spend the night or how you’ll feed them now that you’ve run through your monthly SNAP benefit?

Problems even for parents who are still within the rigid time limit now.

 


How Low-Income Americans Live (and Whether They Live) Depends on Where They Live

November 3, 2014

TalkPoverty.org recently hosted an online panel discussion on policy solutions to the economic insecurity — and downright poverty — that the latest Census figures confirm.

Toward the end of the discussion, the moderator asked panelists for their views on the “political environment” for their solutions. None saw more than the remotest chance of positive action by Congress. All noted good things happening at state and local levels — and expressed hopes for more.

There’s a flip side to these good things. They aren’t happening everywhere. And they almost surely won’t. We have a sort of inequality that’s not much talked about — the markedly unequal opportunities and safety-net supports for low-income people, depending on where they live.

Nothing new about this, of course. I’m moved to remark on it by an analysis the Urban Institute published the same day as the panel discussion.

The Institute looks at what will happen to poor and near-poor uninsured adults in the 23 states that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs, as the Affordable Care Act required, until the Supreme Court said it couldn’t.

As you may recall, the ACA had required states to provide Medicaid coverage to non-elderly adults with incomes no greater than 133% of the federal poverty line — effectively 138% because of the way income is calculated.

The law also allows anyone in the same age bracket to purchase health insurance on an exchange if they can’t get affordable health insurance through their employer, but only if their income was at least 100% of the FPL.

What this means is that an estimated 6.3 million people have fallen into a coverage gap, being ineligible for both unexpanded Medicaid and for affordable health insurance offered on an exchange.

Needless to say (I hope) very few adults so poor can get health insurance sponsored by their employers. And there’s no way they can afford to buy it at market rates.

Their median annual income is just $9,500 — 65% of the FPL, the Institute reports. But it’s considerably lower in a number of states — 61% of the FPL in three (all Southern) and 49% in Alaska, where the median annual income for left-out residents is $7,422.

And, of course, half of the adults in the coverage gap have incomes lower, which means trying to get by on no more than $800 a month in most of the non-expansion states.

Some of these states have also done their best to limit purchases on the exchange that the federal government set up because they wouldn’t create their own.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, the exchange website isn’t altogether user-friendly. Even if it were, assessing the different plans offered and deciding which to choose wouldn’t be easy, especially if you’ve never had health insurance before.

The ACA, however, provided funds for “navigators” to inform consumers and help them through the enrollment process. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established requirements to make sure they could do the job, e.g., training on a range of topics, a certification exam.

At least 13 states piled additional requirements on, according to a Health Care America Now review. Texas, for example, doubled the training hour requirements and added background checks. Can’t have ex-felons advising people on health insurance, you know.

It also requires community groups to secure liability protection, e.g., an insurance policy, for the navigators they retain and to comply with a bunch of additional rules. More costs clearly intended to hamstring the groups’ activities.

Indiana and several other states did something similar through licensing requirements that reportedly cost as much as $175 per navigator. Florida barred navigators from its public health offices.

We can see the results in the latest American Community Survey figures. In Texas 22.1% of the population had no health insurance last year. In the District of Columbia and Hawaii, just 6.7% of residents didn’t. Only Massachusetts, whose own healthcare reform gave it a jumpstart, had a lower rate.

We see similar divides in other state-level policies that affect the lives of low-income people, e.g., minimum wage rates, welfare benefits. I single the ACA pushback out because it’s so egregiously political, perverse and consequential.

Political because the state governors and/or legislative majorities want the ACA to fail — and more importantly, to ensure they don’t get beaten in the next primaries by candidates even further to the right.

Perverse in part because expanding Medicaid wouldn’t cost the states one thin dime until 2016 and only 10% of the costs of health care for the newly-eligible from 2020 forward.

Some of these costs would be offset by savings on care for people without insurance, however. So the extra states would have to spend would be a miniscule percent of what they have to spend anyway — 0.3%, on average, another Urban Institute analysis found.

And some states, the Institute concluded, would probably come out ahead. Another of its studies estimated states’ total savings at $12 billion to $19 billion a year, beginning in 2020.

We don’t need number-crunching to know that states gain nothing by deterring their residents from purchasing health insurance on an exchange. If anything, they’re stiffing their hospitals, virtually all of which must provide emergency care, whether patients can pay for it or not.

But people without health insurance generally don’t get much else by way of medical care. No routine checkups to detect so-called silent health problems like diabetes and hypertension. No screenings that can detect certain types of cancers.

Nor do people without health insurance generally have the wherewithal to follow recommendations they may get, e.g., to take prescribed medications at prescribed intervals, to get followup tests.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth among experts over how many people will die because their states haven’t expanded Medicaid. The truth is we don’t know (yet).

But it seems as clear as day that low-income people — and some not-so-low — can look forward to longer, healthier lives in some states and will die unnecessarily in others. And if that’s not inequality, then I don’t know what is.

 


Why Are Poverty Rates for People With Disabilities So High?

October 30, 2014

My last post tried to answer a straightforward question: How many District of Columbia residents lived in poverty last year? The answer was about one in three, but rates were higher for children and working-age adults, especially the former.

Computing the rates is a whole lot easier than explaining why they’re so high. No source I’ve found comes close. Here’s what I’ve pieced together from federal data and other research for the nation as a whole.

Poverty As Both Cause and Effect for Children With Disabilities

The poverty rate for children with disabilities is high nationwide, though not as high as in the District, where it’s 45.5% of children old enough for the Census Bureau’s survey to have captured all the major types of disabilities they may have.

Such research as we have indicates that children are more likely to be disabled if they’re borne by poor mothers and into poor families. Inadequate nutrition, including actual hunger is a factor. Likewise inadequate health care and exposure to toxins in the environment, e.g., lead paint, pollutants in the air.

Stress itself has toxic effects on children’s physical and mental development. And living in poverty is stressful — not only because of the material hardships and instability children suffer, but because the stresses sometimes cause parents to neglect or even abuse their children — or one parent to abuse the other.

At the same time, childhood disability contributes to family poverty. Parents who would otherwise work can’t — or can’t work as much — because they need to care for their disabled child. Parents here generally means mothers, the research tells us.

Working-Age, But Not Many Working

The poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is somewhat easier to understand. They may be working-age, but relatively few of them are working — only 26.8% of those 16-64 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About one in three were working part time — a higher percent than for their counterparts without a disability.

And both they and the full-timers may, in some cases, have gotten paid as little as a quarter an hour because some employers may legally set wages based on their own assessments of productivity.

An additional 14.7% of working-age adults with disabilities were jobless and actively looking for work — about the same percent as in 2012. The unemployment rate for their counterparts without a disability dropped to less than half this rate.

Rolling the working and looking-for-work figures together, we find that more than two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities were not counted as part of the labor force.

How many could have worked, but became utterly discouraged by employers who wouldn’t even consider them — or who wouldn’t accommodate their disabilities, as the law requires — is an open question.

Some of the dropouts may have worked before they became disabled. If they’d worked long enough and earned enough, they might have qualified for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).

But disability alone wouldn’t suffice. The Social Security Administration would have had to decide that they couldn’t earn much, if anything from work because of their disability and wouldn’t be able to for at least a year.

The benefits might — or might not — lift them over the poverty threshold. Probably wouldn’t for those whose annual earnings averaged somewhere around what a full-time, minimum wage job pays.

Adults who can’t meet the SSDI standards may instead receive Supplemental Security Income benefits if their incomes are low enough, their cash and near-cash assets small and, again, if SSA decides they’re too severely disabled to “engage in substantial gainful activity.”*

SSI lifted about 3.9 million people out of poverty last year. But their incomes couldn’t have been far below the poverty threshold without it. The maximum annual benefit for an individual was about 73% of the threshold for a single person — less, of course, for a family of any size.

Late-Onset Disabilities for Some

Presumably the poverty rate for seniors with disabilities reflects in part the fact that some incurred their disabilities long before their “golden years” — born with them, in some cases, in others early enough so that their Social Security retirement benefits are very low.

But those retirement benefits, plus SSI or draw-downs from their own retirement accounts probably explain why their poverty rate is lowest among the age groups I’ve carved out. Doesn’t mean that all those who cleared the threshold are doing fine.

As I’ve said many times, the thresholds are very low. And when the Census Bureau takes account of basic living expenses, including medical out-of-pocket costs, the District’s senior poverty rate rises to 26% — higher than the rate for any state.

Would that we had SPM rates specifically for young, old and in-between people with disabilities.

* SSI benefits are also available to children with severe disabilities if their families meet somewhat similar income and asset tests and to low-income seniors, disabled or otherwise.

 

 

 


Major Anti-Poverty Measures at Risk and Could Be Better

October 20, 2014

Last week’s Supplemental Poverty Measure report confirmed at least one thing we already knew. The refundable tax credits lift more people out of poverty than any other major public benefit, except Social Security.

The more powerful of the tax credits — the Earned Income Tax Credit — boosted 6.2 million people, including 3.2 million children over the poverty threshold in 2013, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Child Tax Credit did the same for 3.1 million people, including 1.7 million children, again per CBPP.

These tax credits have enjoyed broad bipartisan support, as well they might. The EITC in particular is said to serve as an incentive to work, for which there is some evidence. And who would  stand against help for working parents raising children?

We now have the germs of a bipartisan consensus on certain improvements to both. For example, both some leading Democrats and the Senate and Congressman Paul Ryan have proposed making more childless workers eligible for the EITC and increasing the credit for them.

Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee say they have a proposal that will, among other things, raise the Child Tax Credit, end the phase-out and make the credit refundable against payroll, as well as income tax liabilities. Fine print as yet to be seen.

And fine print could make a very big difference to low-income families — as well as some immigrant families, even if not low-income — as the now-passed House child tax reform bill shows.

Into the dialogue, if we can call it that, comes the Center for American Progress, with a set of recommendations — some already proposed by others, some new. Here’s a somewhat selective — and occasionally elaborated — summary.

Keep the Improvements We Have

First and foremost, CAP says, Congress should make the Recovery Act’s improvements in both the EITC and the CTC permanent law. Both are due to expire at the end of 2017. And thus far, Republicans in Congress have shown no inclination to extend them.

For the EITC, no extension would mean a reversion to a more severe “marriage penalty,” i.e., a lower credit (or no credit) for some workers who marry. It would also mean a stingier credit for families with three or more children.

For the CTC, no extension would mean no credit at all for very low-income working families. The current $3,000 threshold for claiming the credit would revert to what’s in the permanent law, with all the annual upward adjustments since 2001 — thus a threshold estimated at $14,700 for 2018.

And for those clearing the threshold, the refunds would shrink because they’re based on a percent of income over the threshold, up to $1,000 per child.

About 1.8 million people, including a million children would fall into poverty, CBPP warns. Far more would fall deeper into poverty — 14.6 million, including 6.7 million children.

Expand Eligibility for the EITC

CAP takes note of the disadvantages the EITC poses for childless workers — and for workers whose children haven’t lived with them for more than half the year. They’re actually at a double disadvantage, it says, because some research suggests that employers take account of the EITC in setting wage rates.

It endorses, in general terms, an expanded credit for them. Also a lower age for eligibility. But instead of the commonly-mentioned 21, it favors 18, provided that the workers’ parents don’t claim them as dependents.

Boost Child Tax Credit Refunds

CAP wants the CTC to become fully refundable, as the EITC already is. Families would then receive refunds for the total amount that the credit, plus whatever other credits and deductions they can claim reduce their tax liability to less than zero.

It also recommends indexing the credit to keep pace with inflation. This would achieve somewhat the same results as the already-indexed provisions of the EITC do.

But the CTC would still have the same $3,000 threshold, whereas workers can claim the EITC, no matter how little they earn. The Tax Policy Center has recommended eliminating the threshold, a reform also advocated by others.

Change Other Policies to Promote Financial Stability and Upward Mobility

CAP has several recommendations to make it easier — and more attractive — for workers to save at least part of their EITC refunds. Several others would make it easier — and less costly — for workers to improve their earning prospects by getting a college education or job training.

All but one of these reaches beyond the EITC itself. And none can be properly summarized in a paragraph or two. Those interested can find the asset-building recommendations here and the education recommendations here.

CAP does, however, have a financial stability proposal strictly for the EITC — a partial early refund. Workers could initially receive up to $500 of the refund they were already eligible for during the second half of the tax year — more in later years because the limit would rise with the inflation rate.

This, CAP says, would help them pay for unusual expenses, e.g., a car repair, moving costs, without resorting to payday loans or the newer, equally extortionate auto title loans.

An estimated 21% of eligible workers don’t claim the EITC. Various reasons for this, including the complexities of filing. Perhaps more would if the “rainy day fund” proposal, as Generation Progress calls it, were adopted.

But if Congress has to pick and choose, then I think it should give top priority to making the temporary improvements permanent — and to giving childless workers a fair shake.

 


Only Conservatives Value Work and Other Insights From AEI Safety Net Panel

September 22, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the American Enterprise Institute hosted — and provided most of the members for — a panel discussion entitled “How Conservatives Can Save the Safety Net.” My first thought when I got the invitation was, “Well, they could stop slashing it.”

But I decided to find out what those right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — Republicans had in mind. Not, I’m sorry to say, a whole lot that we haven’t heard before. The panel discussion was nevertheless interesting — in part, as a phenomenon.

AEI, as well as some other Republican-friendly organizations — and some decidedly right-wing Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan — have decided that the party needs rebranding. This is also clearly the case for some Republican Presidential hopefuls.

So we see a lot of effort invested in coming up with proposals — or the makings thereof — that will convince voters the party truly cares about struggling Americans and would do more for them than Democrats.

Whatever the motives, we who lean leftward have good reasons to look for common ground — the likely results of the upcoming elections among them. And the AEI panel, as well as some earlier trial balloons, suggest there is some.

So the most striking thing to me was how the panelists appropriated to conservatives some basic principles that progressives generally share — and at the same time, shifted us into the opposing camp.

For example, Tim Carney, the panel’s moderator, said that conservatives “value work” — a “major division” between them and “the left.” Other panelists seized on the theme.

Work confers “human dignity,” Scott Wilson said, including work “in the home,” i.e., not for pay. Robert Doar, a fellow AEI scholar and champion of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, didn’t expressly disagree, but added, “We want people to engage in the larger society,” clearly referring to the labor force.

Well, who among us would disagree? And who would disagree with Doar when he said that if work doesn’t pay enough to meet families’ needs, we should “provide support?”

The true divide here is Doar’s advocacy for rigid time limits because they “get people to face up to the need to address their own issues.” He’s also a true believer in sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts (or cut-offs) when parents “don’t behave a certain way.”

“We [in the TANF programs he administered in New York] “treat people as having agency,” while “so much of the left treats them as victims,” implying that we’re not “hopeful for human resources.”

I don’t suppose we’ll find common ground on time limits — or on the notion that dispensing benefits should empower caseworkers to coerce people into behaving however they’re told to.

But saying we don’t recognize the value of work or the multifarious capacities of parents who’ve perforce turned to welfare will hardly promote a conversation on issues of common concern.

One surely ought to be the shortage of decent-paying jobs that people without a college education and/or high-level skills can qualify for — and the relatively little money that most TANF programs spend on “work activities” like job training.

Also that “support” Doar refers to for parents who move from welfare to work, but can’t afford basic living costs, which, for them, include work-related expenses like transportation and child care.

Scott Winship, the lone non-AEI panelist, flagged another (not unrelated) issue. “Upward mobility has basically stagnated,” he said. But, he continued, “liberals overstate parental income” as a factor in the next generation’s chances of moving up the income scale.

Versus what factor(s) he didn’t say. Nor why we should discount the research showing that children born at the bottom of the scale tend to stay there — or pretty near. But might there be factors we could converge on?

For example, he mentioned efforts to move more people into — and through — college. “Preparedness is a problem,” he said. That’s surely the case, though costs also limit both the “into” and the “through.”

Another potential basis for conversation — yes, I know this may surprise you — is marriage. Panelists, as well as some other conservative scholars, have seemingly taken to heart the research showing that marriage promotion programs don’t work.

And they recognize, as one said, that many means-tested programs “unintentionally penalize marriage” because when two people who both have incomes marry, their household income will, in some cases, reduce or altogether eliminate their benefits.

Does this mean that conservatives would support the President’s proposal to make the temporary mitigation of the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit permanent? Not a peep from the panelists.

Nor specific answers to what they think conservatives should do about any of the other issues they teed up.

Lots of interesting back and forth. But much of it, I felt, was exploring ways Republicans could talk so as to persuade doubting voters they really do care about the (less than) 47% who don’t earn enough to owe federal income taxes — and that Democrats are a bunch of clueless bleeding hearts.

Hence the deliberately — and misleadingly — divisive rhetoric. Disappointing, especially from an organization that claims to pursue its ideals “without regard for politics.”


Bills Would Bring Income Support for Low-Income Seniors and People With Disabilities Into the 21st Century

August 18, 2014

Nearly 8.4 million poor and near-poor people in this country depend, at least in part, on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits to make ends meet. Most are people under 65 who have severe disabilities, but roughly 2.1 million are seniors.

SSI benefits are extremely low — currently a maximum of $721 a month for individuals and $1,082 for couples, when both spouses qualify. They’re the only source of income for more than half the people who receive them.

This is one, though probably not the only reason that the poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is more than 16% higher than the rate for those without them.

It’s also probably one reason that nearly one in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Supplemental Poverty Measure report.

Bills introduced in Congress would improve the financial circumstances of many SSI recipients — and in several ways. They’d also enable more low-income seniors and people with disabilities to qualify.

The maximum benefit would still inch up annually, based on increases in the consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses.

But the bills, as their title suggests, would restore SSI by updating and then indexing to a consumer price measure the dollar amounts of three provisions that haven’t been adjusted for a very long time — in two cases, not since the program was created in 1972.

The bills would also wholly eliminate a provision that may deter friends and family members from lending a helping hand — and penalizes beneficiaries when they do.

Further explanation of some pretty complicated stuff.

Exclusions. SSI benefits are adjusted down from the maximum based on two types of income SSI recipients may receive. But in both cases, the adjustments begin only if the income exceeds a certain amount. This is known as an exclusion.

One exclusion applies to income earned from work. At this point, it’s $65 a month — about nine hours at the federal minimum wage. Any earnings above the amount reduce benefits at a rate of 50 cents for every dollar earned.

The proposed Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act would immediately raise this exclusion to $357, nearly restoring the value it originally had.*

It would thus also restore the incentive to work, when possible. So it would, among other things, encourage recipients to see whether they could “graduate” from SSI by engaging in substantial gainful activity.

The second exclusion applies to certain other types of income, e.g., retirement benefits, interest on savings or some combination thereof. It’s currently $20 a month. Anything more reduces benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The bills would initially raise this exclusion to $110.

Assets. To become — or remain — eligible for SSI, a senior or severely disabled person can have no more than $2,000 in savings or other resources that could readily be converted to cash, e.g., a life insurance policy, heirloom jewelry (unless the recipient wears it). The asset limit for couples is $3,000.

Neither limit has been adjusted since 1989, when dollars went a whole lot further than they do now.

The very low limits pose significant problems. From one perspective, they exclude people who genuinely need the benefits. From another, they keep SSI recipients from saving enough to cope with all but the most minimal emergencies.

As a benefits coordinator at Bread for the City notes, moving costs alone may exceed the limit. So it can keep recipients stuck in housing they can’t afford — or perhaps in supportive housing they no longer need.

She also notes the perverse incentive to spend down savings, even on things not needed — and also to rapidly spend down the lump sum back-payments the SSI program frequently makes because the approval process tends to be slow.

The bills would increase the asset limits to $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a couple. Then, as I said, they would annually rise to preserve their real-money value — just as the exclusions would.

In-Kind Support and Maintenance. Some very complicated rules apply when recipients don’t pay the full costs of their food and shelter, with or without SNAP (food stamp) benefits and housing assistance.

Even the Social Security Administration finds the rules “cumbersome to administer” — and both burdensome and intrusive for recipients.

Basically, SSI benefits are reduced, up to a third, when recipients live with someone else and don’t pay their full share of food and housing costs. Exceptions here if the someone else is a spouse or the recipient a minor-age child.

But when the child turns 18, the benefit cuts kick in — and they come on top of any cuts due to income exceeding the exclusions.

Benefits are also reduced if, for example, a friend or relative pays a utility bill — or buys some groceries when, as so often happens, SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month.

The SSI Restoration Act would repeal this part of the law — and with it, the unintended undermining of what we like to think of as America’s family values.

I don’t suppose I need to tell you that the bills are going nowhere in this Congress. But perhaps they’ll spur some movement toward reforming a good program that sorely needs revisions to bring it into the 21st century.

* The value would have been fully restored, with a little extra if Congress had passed the SSI Restoration Act last year, when it was introduced in the House. This is also true for the general income exclusion.

 


If Not Congressman Ryan’s Super-Block Grant, What?

August 11, 2014

Bashing Congressman Paul Ryan’s super-block grant, as I did, might have left the impression that I think the safety net is just fine — or rather, would be if it were adequately funded and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families overhauled.

In fact, I think some of his starting premises are accurate. And the more thoughtful Opportunity Grant bashers I’m familiar with think so too.

The safety net does need “repair,” as he terms it. Benefits are, in some cases, structured so as to create sharp cliffs, i.e., abrupt losses of support when recipients’ incomes rise even slightly.

Federal assistance is generally “fragmented.” Most is targeted to one specific need — food, housing, health care, etc. And targeting may vary even for one need.

However justified, the targeting has created administrative burdens for both public agencies and the nonprofits they engage, through grants and contracts, to deliver services to low-income people.

At the same time, it often causes the intended beneficiaries no end of grief because they have to apply here for this, there for that — and document some things here, others there. Then they have to do it all over again if their circumstances change — a periodically, no matter what.

All this, of course, assumes they know what aid they might be eligible for. Many don’t, as people plunged into poverty by the Great Recession know well.

So how could we make the safety net more efficient and more friendly to both people in poverty and people on their way up and out? The Center for American Progress offers some answers.

Encourage states to make choices that will reduce bureaucracy. These choices come in several flavors.

One is for states to use the flexibility they already have to align eligibility standards across multiple programs and then use the information collected for one to automatically enroll qualified people in others.

States are already moving in this direction. For example, 38 states and the District of Columbia have integrated their intake and eligibility determination processes for Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program).

Another, specifically for SNAP, is to use certain standard deductions in determining income eligibility, rather than calculations based on actual itemized costs.

Still another, reported by CLASP in its brief on an initiative to help states streamline their work support programs, is to eliminate eligibility and verification requirements that aren’t required by federal laws or rules.

Adopt “no wrong door” approaches. The basic idea here is that people seeking help can get linked to any and all assistance they’re qualified for on a single website or at a single location, e.g., a center operated by a public agency or community-based organization.

CAP cites the Benefit Bank and two other national nonprofits that collaborate with local organizations to provide one online “door” for screening and applications.

An award-winning project called VITA Plus takes a different approach. It uses the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites that the Internal Revenue Service funds to screen clients for benefits they could be eligible for, in addition to the tax credits VITA volunteers conventionally help clients claim.

Smooth remaining benefits cliffs. As CAP observes, policy changes and program innovations at the federal level have already reduced — or in some cases, eliminated — the unintended penalties families incurred as they moved from welfare to work.

Health insurance is a prime example — and would be even more if recalcitrant states would expand their Medicaid programs as the Affordable Care Act envisions.

A this point, residents of 26 states and the District can transition directly from Medicaid to subsidized health insurance policies — generously subsidized if their incomes tip them just over the ACA-established Medicaid limit.

There are additional opportunities. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits states to postpone downward adjustments of SNAP benefits for five months when families move from welfare to work. Only 20 states do so now.

Loss of childcare subsidies is another cliff states have the flexibility to smooth.

Reduce reporting and recertification requirements. Agencies obviously must at some intervals — and in some manner — make sure that people enrolled in safety net and other means-tested programs are still income-eligible.

But requiring beneficiaries to recertify frequently creates cliffs for the many low-wage workers whose earnings go up and down according to the irregular schedules employers often impose.

And when workers must show up in person, with reams of paper — and wait until someone gets around to seeing them — they may lose work hours. Even their jobs perhaps. Needless to say, such requirements also create hardships for frail seniors and people with disabilities.

Once again, states can streamline their bureaucracies and make life easier for beneficiaries at the same time. And once again, some already do.

Now, as CAP hastens to say, these improvements are only “a piece of the puzzle to provide a hand up” to people in poverty.

And the improvements themselves will require public investments. Smoothing cliffs, for example, will require funding to extend benefits up the income scale.

Streamlining access to benefits will require investments to strengthen technological capacities, e.g., heavy-duty computer systems, online screening and applications tools, programs that talk to one another.

But we clearly don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Ryan’s super-block grant would do.

NOTE: I’m painfully aware that this post fails to do justice to the initiatives — or even types of initiatives — that public agencies and nonprofits have undertaken, along the lines that CAP recommends. This alone is proof, if any were needed, that the federal government hasn’t imposed “cookie cutter” management or stifled civil society.

 

 

 


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