Group: Unused welfare funds should go to child care

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R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, said the state has effectively reduced welfare spending with “bureaucratic barriers” such as drug testing and up-front job search requirements.

A Mississippi advocacy group called a Capitol press conference Thursday to urge the state to stop wasting money.

That group, the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, doesn’t contend that fraud or abuse exists in a state agency. Rather, the group’s point is that the state leaves millions of dollars in welfare funds unused.

Their proposal: Use those funds to help poor families afford child care.

Carol Burnett, the executive director of the child-care coalition, said Mississippi spends on average only 72 percent of the funds it receives from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, leaving more than a quarter of the funding on the table each year.

In federal Fiscal Year 2015, Mississippi reported an unspent balance of $35 million, Burnett said.

“TANF welfare reform was intended to move people off welfare and into work. What we discovered in our review of the last 20 years of TANF in Mississippi is that people have been moved off the welfare rolls, but not out of poverty and not into work,” Burnett said during the press conference.

Burnett’s claims are bolstered in a report on the state of the TANF program that her organization commissioned and released this week.

Since 2003, TANF caseloads have fallen by two-thirds. The report also found that seven in 10 family cases were closed due to work-related sanctions and non-compliance with other federal and state policies.

Using data from the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the report finds that Mississippi has the lowest maximum cash assistance available to a family of three on TANF, at $170 per month.

At the same time, spending on child care has plateaued, authors of the report wrote, even though between 11,000 and 13,000 children are on the state’s waiting list for low-income child care vouchers.

Federal rules allow states to transfer up to 30 percent of TANF funds.

“We have reduced dollars (to TANF) by creating bureaucratic barriers,” said Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton.

In recent years, the Legislature has passed bills requiring applicants for welfare assistance to submit to drug testing and to prove that they have applied for a certain number of jobs per week.

Blackmon, along with Reps. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, and Orlando Paden, D-Clarksdale, plan to introduce legislation on the child-care initiative’s behalf.

One bill would involve transferring unused TANF funds to the Child Care Development Fund as well as spending an additional $20 million on child care. The group also wants to create a fund for former TANF families who were kicked off the program for reasons other than because they found work or their incomes rose.

Dortch said helping poor mothers pay for child care would let them go to college or work, lifting them out of poverty.

“It makes no sense when have have one fourth of children living in poverty to forgo 30 million in federal (TANF) dollars,” Dortch said.

Contributing: Zachary Oren Smith

Follow R.L. Nave on Twitter @rlnave. Email him at [email protected] or call 601-533-4860.