Journal Gazette: Family aid plan needs an update

Nov 29, 2018


Kindness and compassion flow so naturally as the holiday season begins. Toys, winter coats, food baskets – the community’s generosity toward the less fortunate among us knows no bounds. That level of caring and giving is impossible to sustain year-round, though. It’s important to remember that many families in this region and this state struggle to get by. Individuals and private charities do wonderful things – but there’s a vital role for public policy in eradicating the problems of poverty here and around Indiana.

“While much of our community is thriving,” the St. Joseph Health Foundation reported this summer, “about 15.2 percent of the Allen County population (around 55,000 individuals) lives below the Federal Poverty Level, and over 21,000 of them are children under 18 years of age.” Even working families whose earnings are above the poverty line may be living just one major unexpected expense away from disaster. Based on 2016 data, the Indiana United Ways estimated this year that 36 percent of Allen County residents are “asset-limited, income-constrained and employed.”

That’s one in three residents, David Nicole, United Way of Allen County president and CEO, said in an interview last week. “Unemployment is down, and that is a great thing,” Nicole said. “But at the same time, an individual who is working two, maybe three part-time jobs is still struggling to put all the income together to cover the basic costs of life.”

United Way’s 211 line helps callers find solutions to short-term emergencies, and offers counsel to those with deeper needs who must access public and private programs if they’re ever to break the cycle of poverty.

For those in deep poverty, a path out of hopelessness means much more than grabbing a job application. It may require not just training for particular kinds of work but counseling on basic workplace and communication skills, help with child care and transportation costs, even appropriate clothing.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families offers very poor families with children younger than 18 a small cash allowance and the basic assistance the parents need to find work. But in Indiana, the program is sadly underused.

The state sets requirements for the program, which is funded through federal block grants and is designed to provide short-term assistance for adults as they transition to the workforce plus longer-term help for children. But according to the Indiana Institute for Working Families, the net income cutoff for temporary assistance is far too low: $288 a month for a family of three or 16 percent of the federal poverty level.

The program has barely been updated since 1996, Jessica Fraser, the institute’s director, said last week. Consequently, a low number of Hoosiers qualify. In October, according to FSSA reports, 5,783 families were receiving grants statewide; in Allen County, it was 287 families, with a total of 526 children. Working Families and other advocacy groups want the legislature to open Indiana’s temporary assistance program to thousands more Hoosiers by moving the eligibility and benefit levels to 50 percent of federal poverty cutoffs, which, Fraser points out, is still a profound level of need.

Your help in the season of giving will bring blessings to many. The legislature should approach the question of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families eligibility with compassion, as well.

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