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The Journal Gazette

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Wednesday, May 08, 2019 1:00 am


Momentum shift

Family aid bill's path offers hope for next time

A bill to bring the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program into the 21st century seemed to be on a clear path to passage in the Indiana legislature's recently concluded session. Until, for no apparent reason, it wasn't.

Created in 1988 to help Indiana's most desperate families escape deep poverty, the program is funded through a federal block-grant system that was created to replace earlier “welfare” plans that critics said encouraged indolence.

It allowed states to tailor the program to their own needs and adjust payments and eligibility requirements as needs changed; most states have done so.

But Indiana is still using the figures for eligibility and assistance it established more than 30 years ago. To qualify, a family of three must make no more than $288 a month – 16% of the federal poverty level. The average cash benefit now stands at $192.60. The plan's eligibility bar is the fourth-strictest in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of Indiana's program has dropped precipitously. Many deserving families can't qualify for assistance and others who do qualify need more help than it provides. Jessica Fraser of the Indiana Institute for Working Families estimates that participation in the program is dropping by about 1% a month. Last fall, just 287 families and 526 children were being served in Allen County.

Designed as a helping-hand-up program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families could be a useful tool as Indiana seeks to meet its workforce needs.

The “temporary” in the program's name refers to the fact adults and children are only eligible for its benefits for a short time. The “assistance'' in the title refers not just to a small cash allowance but for wraparound services designed to help very poor people become employed. Those include not just a requirement to look for work, but case management, workforce training, counseling on the soft skills needed to land and keep a job, and assistance with transportation and child care. The cash stipend helps participants meet incidental expenses as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Only a small portion of the state's annual block grant goes to the temporary family assistance program. By phasing increases in over several years, Sen. Jon Ford's Senate Bill 440 would have raised eligibility and assistance to 50% of federal poverty standards without affecting the state's bottom line. It tied future increases to the Social Security cost-of-living index, so the state would not find itself trying to play catch-up again.

The bill was approved by a Senate committee and by the full Senate unanimously. Then it moved to the House Committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs, where it again was approved unanimously.

Then it was remanded to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it was allowed to die without a hearing. “I was never given an official reason,” Fraser said in an interview Tuesday.

The bill was deemed deserving by everyone who had a chance to vote on it. Maybe that offers some hope for next year.