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Cash assistance for Louisiana families will increase in 2022 for 1st time in decades

downtown baton rouge.jpg
Aubry Procell
/
WRKF
A view of Downtown Baton Rouge from the top of the State Capitol on Nov. 12, 2021.

Louisiana families that qualify for federally-funded cash assistance will receive twice as much money in 2022, officials said, marking the state’s first benefits increase in more than 20 years.

Starting in January, monthly benefits distributed through two programs, Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program (FITAP) and Kinship Care Subsidy Program (KCSP), will both double to meet the national average.

For example, a qualifying family of three can expect to see their monthly benefit amount increase from $240 to the national average which is $484.

Marketa Garner, with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), said in a statement that she hopes the benefit increase “will attract more people and encourage them to apply.”

Louisiana has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, but due to historically low benefits and increased restrictions, the programs have served fewer people over time. Less than 3,000 families received benefits in November, DCFS said.

“This is especially important at a time when families are facing price increases due to inflation and unprecedented need caused by the pandemic,” said Shavana Howard with DCFS’s division of family support.

Inflation has increased 61% since the benefit amount was last increased in July 2000.

Louisiana also plans to expand other aspects of its social safety net in 2022, including weekly unemployment benefits and Medicaid coverage to children with developmental disabilities.

But even as states in the Gulf South increase benefits, their programs are often still far behind the rest of the country.

For example, Mississippi increased its federally funded cash assistance program in 2021 from $170 a month for a family of three with no other income to $260.

Through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the federal government provides states with tens of millions of dollars annually to distribute to residents, either through direct aid or supporting programs.

Federal cash benefits provided through TANF are intended to meet families’ basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing. In the case of FITAP, benefits are temporary and are tied to career development. Meanwhile, KCSP is meant to provide qualified relatives with additional income to care for a child whose parents are not in the home.

States can use TANF for any program they want as long as it meets one of the following four goals:

  • Providing assistance to needy families so children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives
  • Ending the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
  • Preventing and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establishing annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies 
  • Encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families 

That means states can spend money — that many people think of as welfare — on anything from college scholarships to marriage counseling.

Louisiana spends more TANF dollars on pre-kindergarten and child welfare and less on cash assistance than most states, according to a recent state audit.

Nearly 28% of its TANF funding in 2021 went toward pre-kindergarten programs and another 25% went toward child welfare, including emergency assistance.

Just 8% of TANF funds were spent on cash assistance, and less than 1% were spent on related work programs that recipients need to participate in to maintain their eligibility.

Meanwhile, the audit found that on average states spent 20.6% of their TANF grants on cash assistance and 11.7% on work programs.

Louisiana currently has one of the lowest benefits amounts in the country for both of these programs and it isn’t because they don’t have the money on hand.

The audit also found that in recent years Louisiana rolled over between $45 and $65 million in unspent TANF funds each year, even though states now have greater flexibility in how surplus funds can be spent.

Part of the reason why there’s been so much money left over has to do with the state’s low benefits and how they relate to program eligibility, said Danny Mintz, the director of safety net policy for the Louisiana Budget Project.

In Louisiana, eligibility for cash assistance is much lower than the federal poverty line since a recipient’s total monthly income cannot exceed the benefits they receive, though there are some temporary exceptions.

Mintz said he hopes families are made aware of not just the increase in benefits, but how they relate to eligibility. If they don’t know, they won’t apply and the money will remain unspent.

“Doubling the cash assistance benefit when it hasn't been raised since the Clinton Administration is a big deal,” he said. “On the other hand, it's still really far from sufficient to address the level of need that we have in Louisiana.”

While FITAP and KCSP are meant to provide financial aid to children living in poverty, either through their parents or another legal caregiver, Mintz said the program reaches very few children.

Louisiana has one of the highest proportions of kids living in extreme poverty in the country. Before the pandemic, 13% of children were living beneath 50% of the poverty line.

At the time, FITAP, which serves a greater number of children than KCSP, served less than half a percent of Louisiana children, Mintz said.

While the new year’s bump in benefits is an important step to meet the needs of Louisiana families, and keep up with inflation, he said more needs to be done to ensure families can fulfill work requirements and paperwork burdens associated with the programs.

Mintz said he’s encouraged by several other steps DCFS plans to take in the new year, including the creation of new programs meant to support families who are eligible for cash assistance.

In particular, he’s excited by the Diversion Assistance Program (DAP), which is meant to help families respond to a “temporary crisis” by providing additional funding on a short-term basis and is set to launch in late 2022.

Mintz said he doesn’t want to minimize the positive impact that the benefit increase on Jan. 1 will have. He expects many families to use the increased benefits to buy more nutritious food and pay for car repairs.

At the same time, he said the money comes at a time when families will also be experiencing a reduction in other benefits.

The expanded child tax credit, which provided families with monthly payments, ranging from $250 to $300, starting in July expired Friday after Congress failed to renew it as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

“I think for poor families that receive [TANF] and were also able to receive the child tax credit, the [TANF] increase is coming at a very important time because another really critical source of support is going away,” Mintz said.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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