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Monday, February 20, 2012

GOP legislator introduces 2 bills proposing to tighten reins on the state’s welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

CONCORD – Legislation proposing to reform New Hampshire’s welfare system could cost some families $72.50 a month.

Depending whom you ask, that’s either a small step toward reform that will keep N.H. in line with neighboring states and limit abuses of the system, or a further erosion of necessary programs that are keeping some families afloat.

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, has introduced a pair of bills proposing to tighten the reins on the state’s welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The first proposal, HB 263, proposes to reduce the individuals’ lifetime eligibility for the program from 60 to 36 months. And the second, HB 1658, would eliminate additional benefits provided to mothers who give birth while enrolled in the program.

The bill would not apply to children born within 10 months of when the mother first applies to the state.

“If someone is getting help, he or she has a responsibility not to exacerbate his or her needs. That seems very unfair,” Kurk said, referring to the current program, which pays new mothers an average of $72.50 a month for an additional child.

But to social service advocates around the state, the matter is less about the parents than the children, who would suffer under the proposals, they said.

Together, the two welfare bills, both under consideration in the state Legislature, would not only drive some of the state’s poorest children deeper into poverty, leaving taxpayers to front the costs, but they would further attack a welfare system that has already been weakened by the Legislature in recent years, advocates said.

“The way I see it, TANF is there to protect the child, to make sure the child has the formula it needs to grow,” said Keith Kuenning, director of advocacy for Child and Family Services, a statewide social service agency.

“Bills like this would really change the culture in our state,” added John Tobin, executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which provides legal services for low-income earners. “We’ve always had this sense of obligation to help our neighbors in need. Now, there’s some of these people in Concord who don’t believe in much of a social safety net. ... They’ll go as far as they can (to cut government assistance).”

Since it launched in its current form in 1996 as part of the federal welfare reform efforts, the state’s TANF programs have provided assistance to thousands of residents across the state, directors said.

As of December 2011, the Needy Families program, which provides financial assistance to struggling single-parent households, served about 6,000 families. Parents, most of whom are required to work under the program, are eligible to collect up to $675 a month, though the average grant was $505, which falls more than 50 percent below the federal poverty level, according to Terry Smith, director of the state’s Division of Family Assistance.

“On its own, TANF is not good enough for kids,” Smith said. “That’s why it has a very strong work component.”

Starting next month, the programs’ enrollment numbers are set to fall with the onset of another state law, which will now consider federal Supplemental Security Income benefits when awarding the state grants.

More than 1,000 welfare clients, who collect up to $650 a month in federal disability benefits, will no longer qualify for the state grants under the new law, which goes into effect in March, Smith said.

Kurk’s bills wouldn’t effect as many New Hampshire families, supporters and opponents agree. Of the 219 children born last year to TANF recipients, 74 were born more than 10 months after the parent signed up with the state program, according to state figures.

“It’s not that we’re seeing a lot of that. ... It’s more about establishing a very important social principle,” Kurk said.

And, as for the eligibility bill, which passed the House last month and is now awaiting debate in the Senate, he argues it will only affect a small fraction of clients who reach the limits of the state’s eligibility period.

Of the 6,000 families currently enrolled, they average about 19 months on the program, according to state figures, and only 1,000 reach two years on the program – below the 36-month limit proposed in the bill.

Rather, the legislation intends to discourage out-of-staters from abusing New Hampshire’s welfare program by bringing the state in line with others like Massachusetts, which limits welfare eligibility to 24 months, Kurk said.

“There is anecdotal evidence, but no hard data to suggest that ... Massachusetts people, having run out of welfare benefits, would come up to New Hampshire to take advantage of our system,” he said. “That’s not something we want to encourage.”

Intensions aside, opponents argue that both bills would have severe consequences for some of the state’s most struggling residents.

With no documented evidence of families abusing the current welfare laws, both the eligibility bill and the family cap legislation would only take away resources from residents who are struggling to provide for their children, according to Sarah Mattson, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the legal aid firm.

“Often, these are people who have been abused, people with disabilities, people who have gone through some sort of life tragedy,” Mattson said.

“You’re talking about families that are hit really hard,” added Kuenning, of Child and Family Services. “The benefits just barely cover food and diapers.“

But as much as the clients will suffer, taxpayers across the state could be affected under these proposals, as well, opponents said.

Under the bills, welfare recipients who lose state coverage could look to family and friends, as well as local churches and charitable groups for assistance in times of need, Kurk said in support of the proposals.

But under the current recession, churches and social service groups find themselves struggling to meet the increased needs of families across the state.

Last year, Families in Transition, which runs 13 housing properties in and around Manchester, was able to serve less than one-third of the 1,800 people who called for assistance, according to agency counts. And further south, both the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter and Southern New Hampshire Services, which provides supportive housing around the region, have faced similar struggles, officials said.

“You have all these people that had jobs who are unemployed who have never been unemployed before ... and now you add on to that people who are (possibly) losing TANF services,” said Kathryn Paquette, an outreach worker for Southern New Hampshire services. “We don’t have shelter space anywhere in the state.”

With these groups strapped, the costs of aiding the state’s poorest residents could fall back to taxpayers, advocates said.

Local welfare offices, funded by taxpayers in cities and towns across the state, are required by law to provide transitional support to families in need until they secure state or federal benefits.

“Cities and towns have an absolute obligation to provide for someone in need. They are really the place of last resort,” said Cordell Johnston, a lobbyist for the N.H. Municipal Association, which opposes the family cap bill.

“Someone’s going to have to take care of these people, and that could fall to us,” said Robert Mack, Nashua’s welfare officer who serves as president of the state’s Local Welfare Administrators Association. “If that happens, we’ll have to find a way to pay for it.”

But moving forward, the costs to the community won’t end there, advocates warned. If legislators continue to cut back on public assistance, it will leave state residents to pay the costs of poverty over the generations to come, according to Mary Lou Beaver, director of the New Hampshire chapter of Every Child Matters, a national child advocacy group that has lobbied against the bills.

“When a child experiences poverty, you see depression. You see poor nutrition. You see education drops,” Beaver said. “You see these over extended periods. And here we are wondering why there’s a cycle of poverty.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.