Jun 5, 2007

A big hole in the safety net: Ohio’s TANF funding, Part 6

The proposed budget

The Administration has indicated that their rationale for not providing a decent increase in the level of public assistance is that OWF children will be receiving other services that will somehow help compensate for the fact that they do not have enough money to meet their basic needs. A review of the governor’s budget proposal would indicate that there are several areas in which families may receive some additional help.

The largest increase in the governor’s budget for TANF is going to a fee increase for child care providers. They will receive an increase of 11 percent, beginning this May. This will increase the average payment per child from approximately $400 to about $440 a month. Only about 25 percent of OWF children receive child care assistance. Those assistance payments are made directly to the child care provider and not to the OWF family. While increasing these provider fees may be very well warranted, it does not help OWF families pay their bills and put food on the table.

The governor’s budget also calls for expansions of the Early Learning Initiative (ELI) and other child development activities. All of these activities are already available to OWF families; however, none of these programs provides any assistance to help these families meet their basic needs. Though these development activities can potentially do a lot of good, participation levels are low. In the face of possible eviction, empty dinner plates and spotty employment, it is difficult for families to find the time or energy to focus on learning activities. Recent studies regarding the long-term effects of child care on the developmental abilities of children have determined that the quality of life within the family is a more significant determinant of success for children’s development than is child care or any other activity.

Another issue that has been raised regarding the potential increase in OWF benefits is “sustainability.” There is no doubt that the TANF block grant is a fixed, limited amount of money. Even with the huge unspent balance of funds(about $403 million was unobligated before the new budget proposal), there is obviously a finite limit on how many activities can be funded through this source. It is ironic that the issue of sustainability seems to be raised more often with issues such as providing direct cash assistance to families than it does for the wide range of other services funded through TANF dollars.

In reality, cash assistance accounts for only about 25 percent of all TANF funding, despite the fact that meeting basic human needs should be the first priority for these funds. There must be a serious discussion about what the priorities for TANF funding should be as we move forward, and it should involve a discussion of the full range of services currently funded.

There is no less guarantee of “sustainability” for kinship care or child care than there is for cash assistance. For the past 30 years, while many social services programs have come and gone, we have always provided cash assistance to low-income families (albeit at an inadequate level.) It is also true that during that entire 30-year span, and in the face of serious budget challenges, no governor or general assembly has ever actually cut the level of benefits for the assistance being provided through the OWF or the former Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program. It is highly unlikely that cash assistance benefits would be cut in the future. In fact, it is far more likely that it would be some of the other wide range of TANF-funded services that would be in jeopardy. Perhaps this is why there has been so little support throughout the human services community for an increase in public assistance benefits. Despite a lack of support, the obvious fact is that an increase in cash assistance is necessary and would improve the lives of Ohio’s neediest children.

--Jack Frech, Director

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