Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bureaucratic barriers hide the real numbers of poor people

Sunday's New York Times reported on a curious phenomenon: poverty and unemployment are increasing, but somehow the welfare rolls are not going up-- the rate of enrollees from last year to this year is a statistically insignificant 0.3%. A few states had increases, a few had decreases, but it all balanced out.

The number of people receiving food stamps, however, went up in every single state, sometimes dramatically-- Florida's rate went up 16%.

So why the difference?

Since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed in 1996, public assistance, although partially funded by the federal government, is administered by each state with a great deal of latitude. The Food Stamp program, however, or SNAP as it is now called, is a straightforward federal program with a simple application form, and it doesn't cost the states a penny.

Therefore states have no reason to hide how many people are on the SNAP program, while much of public assistance, with its poor cousin homelessness, come directly from cash-poor state coffers.

Here in Massachusetts, public assistance administrators have a long history of keeping the family homeless rolls down by by creating regulations that disqualify families from shelter. If a family is not in a homeless shelter, that family can't be counted in the statistics.

This year, the line item that provides shelter for homeless families is facing a $3.36 million deficit. The Executive Office of Health and Human Services has figured out a way to reduce that deficit by $517,375 by instituting eight new regulations.

The advocacy organization Mass. Coalition for the Homeless has analyzed the impact of one of these regulations:

1. Denying eligibility to families who have been evicted or voluntarily left public or subsidized housing without good cause in the past three years. This represents a significant expansion of grounds for denial. Under current regulations, a family can be denied access to shelter if they have been evicted from public or subsidized housing for non-payment of rent, criminal activity, or destruction of property and that eviction is directly connected to the family’s current need for shelter.
Currently, this bar from shelter usually is in effect for no more than 12 months. It is unclear how broadly DTA will define good cause. In one estimate from DTA, this change would affect 20 families per month, although the actual number of children and families left without shelter may be much higher. In describing this change, DTA has said, “Families in this situation have already been granted and lost one of the most generous public benefits due to their own actions…Besides saving scarce EA resources for those who have not had this opportunity, this policy shift will be an incentive to those with subsidies to keep them.”

The Coalition does not believe that households purposely make themselves homeless knowing that they can obtain shelter or that housing authorities will change their behavior and work more closely with tenants to address problems before eviction because the family will be ineligible for this assistance. No child should be condemned to homelessness, and denied a basic safety net, for even a day, let alone three years.

Once again, poor people are in a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" situation.

During the Bush years, when the leaks in our economy had not yet become visible, there was no room for poor people to make a decent living. Now, when even the middle class is suffering, poor people are just supposed to suck it up-- times are tough for everyone, right?

I will be curious to see if the new stimulus plans will reach deeply enough to to offer hope for those at the economic bottom. But based on past history, I'm not holding my breath.

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