BOSTON – Anti-poverty advocates are making a major push to expand welfare benefits as part of a campaign to lift tens of thousands of children out of "deep poverty."
One proposal, backed by more than 80 mostly Democratic lawmakers, would increase welfare benefits through the state’s primary cash assistance program, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, by 10% every year until the payments reach 50% of the federal poverty level. That would raise the benefits for an average family of three to $889 a month.
Supporters of the measure say benefits haven't increased in nearly two decades, while the cost of living has skyrocketed.
"It is simply unconscionable that we have children living in deep poverty in our commonwealth," state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, the bill's primary sponsor, told members of the Legislature's Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday. "These families need help, they are on the edge of despair and have no where else to turn."
Lawmakers behind the proposal say $50 million more in state aid over a four-year period will only bring families up to what is considered "deep poverty," or half the federal poverty level. For a family of four, "deep poverty" is considered $10,665 or less.
"People are treading water, some people are even drowning," said Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, the bill's primary sponsor in the state House of Representatives. "Bringing them up to the deep poverty level is really about throwing them a life-jacket and letting them hold on and take a breath."
Overall, the number of families on the state’s primary cash assistance program has declined by half since the 1990s, to about 30,000 per month, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance.
Combined the state spends roughly $16 million a month on the programs.
Under current law, a recipient is limited to receiving welfare for two years in any five-year period. The family of three in the program collects a maximum of $593 per month.
Last year, lawmakers pushed through a repeal of state rules that denied additional benefits for children born into families already receiving assistance from the state.
Repealing the so-called "cap on kids" means that a parent receiving benefits now gets an additional $100 in monthly benefits for each child, regardless of whether the child is born before or after the parent became eligible for benefits. Families also receive an additional $300 yearly clothing allowance per child.
Anti-poverty advocates say overall the state's welfare programs have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, forcing families to scrimp on basic necessities.
"Thirty years ago these grants at least lifted families out of poverty," said Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, one of several anti-poverty groups backing the proposal. "But now families can't afford to meet their basic needs. That includes buying food, when food stamps run out, and paying for things like laundry and diapers."
Lawmakers are weighing a separate proposal, also heard by the committee on Tuesday, to create a pilot project extending benefits for families that reach a "cliff" when they hit the two-year limit on receiving benefits.
Another proposal, filed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, asks health officials to study creating a diaper subsidy for low-income families with children under 2 years old.
Diapers aren’t covered by federal food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nor are they provided by the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which classifies them with cigarettes and alcohol as invalid items.
Welfare assistance can be applied to anything a family needs. But advocates say only 23 percent of poor families with children nationally receive benefits.
If the plan takes shape and is approved, Massachusetts would be the first state to provide diaper subsidies to welfare beneficiaries.
In 2016, California lawmakers passed a bill giving a $50 monthly diaper voucher to families on welfare with children. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the plan, citing its fiscal impact.
Lovely said parents who can't afford diapers may decide to stay home with their children and not work, contributing to the "cycle of poverty."
"A parent who stays home with a child because the child lacks diapers forfeits the opportunity to hold a job, go to school or pursue job training," she told the panel on Tuesday.
Medical professionals say families scraping by on the federal poverty line experience negative health and educational impacts that affect not just the children but their parents as well.
"Lifting families out of deep poverty not only makes it possible for parents to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and education, it also reduces parents' anxiety and depression that also harms children," Dr. Ann Easterbooks, a child psychologist and professor at Tufts University, told the panel. "Even a small increase in funds ... makes a difference in the life of a family."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com