JP Observer: New ‘reforms’ could reduce families getting state aid

Most of us like to think we have government programs and funding in place to help poor and disabled people and their children in Massachusetts.

We do, to some extent, but the state, under the well-worn label of “reform,” appears to be trying to reduce the number of recipients of Transitional Aid to Needy Families (TANF), sometimes called “welfare.” According to Action for Boston Community Development, eligible families receive an average of about $453 per month.

Erecting hurdles to getting state cash assistance and encouraging disabled residents to turn to a federal entitlement program for help are two major provisions in a new law.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation in July that requires Massachusetts residents who want assistance due to their or a child’s disability to apply for federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) administered by Social Security—and to appeal any SSI denial.

SSI is usually long-term, and receiving welfare is limited to a total of five years per person per lifetime—two years at a time, maximum. So, people who meet SSI’s strict disability guidelines may choose those benefits over the state’s.

Since welfare “reform” in the mid-1990s, aid to poor people seems like a supplementary unemployment program. The latest Massachusetts law says every adult who isn’t exempt as disabled will be required to do a documented search for a full-time job for 30 days before being able to collect or renew assistance.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April that a similar job search policy enacted in 2012 in Pennsylvania has resulted in a 75 percent decrease in families accepted to receive assistance.

The system itself seems to actually discourage recipients from working sometimes, according to one mother. Geneva Smith (not her real name) collects TANF for herself and three children, 3, 7 and 13.

Smith said housing caseworkers have told her she must meet with them at times she is supposed to be at her part-time retail job. And they say she lives too far away from the store.

“It’s like they are trying to get me not to work. But I like to work,” she said in a recent interview.

Regulations spelling out how the new law will be implemented have not been issued yet. Jamaica Plain resident Georgia Mattison is on the Boston DTA Advisory  Board.

DTA has to wrestle with myriad fundamental issues—according to Mattison, a staffer at Poor People’s United Fund—including: how “job search” is defined and proven; training and education provided; how adults without funds for transportation, a telephone, a computer or child care can apply for a job; how DTA will assist with a job search and/or applying for SSI; what will the state do if adults and children who are now considered disabled are not granted SSI; what happens to children who qualify for assistance but their low-income parents don’t; and when recipients will be told about the new job search and disability requirements.

How coming regulations answer those questions will be crucial to determining how many disadvantaged residents can clear the new barriers to financial aid for themselves and their children.

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