Tuesday, May 08, 2012

TANF recipients may be cut off from benefits

By Ashley Griffin

As lawmakers look to cut billions from the state’s Medicaid liability, other programs geared at helping Illinoisans in poverty may also see substantial reductions.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget would cap lifetime eligibility for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family Program, formerly known as welfare, at three years. TANF provides cash assistance to pregnant women or families with children, and lifetime benefits are currently capped at five years. Quinn has also proposed reductions to job training and placement programs offered through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. However, Quinn’s plan does not call for cuts to food stamps, which are paid for with federal funds.

In recent years, income assistance programs have all seen increases, and the Department of Human Services says it cannot afford to keep pace. According to Michelle Saddler, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, the proposed cuts are a result of the increased demands in services — a result of the recession that hit Illinois hard. The department has seen a spike in demands on its income assistance programs and programs that assist persons with developmental disabilities and mental disabilities in the wake of the recession. “Some of those increased cost come from increased demand. As we all know, there has been an economic downturn. During an economic downturn more and more people need services,” Saddler said. According to Linda Satterfield, director of the Division of Family and Community Services at DHS, caseloads at local offices have grown 38 percent in the last five years. “Last year, the TANF caseload was 38,500. Our TANF caseload has grown to 46,000. We have the 12th largest TANF caseload in the nation, and our processing time ranks 51st,” said Satterfield.

Increased demand for the TANF program is squeezing out other programs that rely on the same funds. Quinn’s administration has notified child care providers in the state that they may see payments delayed at least until the next fiscal year starts in July because they are paid out of the same fund as TANF benefits. Under federal welfare reform passed in the '90s, states can spend TANF dollars on programs besides cash assistance, such as child care and job training. Quinn is seeking a supplemental appropriation from lawmakers to try to keep TANF assistance and child care subsidies afloat. “We will not be able to get through this fiscal year without supplemental [funds],”  Satterfield said. Quinn is asking for an additional $73.6 million.

Advocates say that families who are kicked off TANF under the proposed eligibility change would likely have nowhere else to turn. “I mean, that’s more of a hardship because you’ve got families that this is the last safety net, so if you remove this, then they have no income whatsoever,” said Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, who also did not find the increase in TANF cases surprising. “The reason why the TANF caseload is growing is because of the economy. These are all programs that should grow when there is a recession; they are there to replace income [that] people don’t have because of the recession.”

According to Lesser, shifting TANF eligibility from five years to three years would instantly affect 3,000 Illinois families and more families every month after. “There is no policy justification for doing this; they haven’t even offered policy justification. This is the worst possible time, with the state of the economy [and] the long period of times people are going between jobs, to shorten the time limit,” Lesser said.

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