Advocates push for boost in welfare payments

State rates haven't changed in two decades

FOR EIGHT YEARS, April Jennison was on and off welfare benefits, receiving a $491 grant each month to sustain herself and her daughter while living in Wareham, a small town at the northern tip of Buzzards Bay. She washed clothing in the bathtub because she couldn’t afford to go to a laundromat. She sometimes ate one meal a day so her daughter would have food. She debated whether it was better to keep her daughter in a wet diaper or let her run around at home without one because they were so costly.

“When you are trying to live on this kind of money, it’s like you’re a firefighter, constantly trying to put out little fires. As soon as you put out one little fire, there’s another fire to put out,” Jennison said.

For all its reputation as a haven of progressive policy, advocates say Massachusetts is severely lagging when it comes to benefit payments to welfare recipients. They are looking to change that through a broad coalition of groups supporting low-income individuals that launched a campaign this legislative session called “Lift Kids Out of Deep Poverty.” They are championing bills that would substantially increase the size of monthly welfare grants, which have not been raised in two decades.

“We’re talking about the most vulnerable in our society, and we will be judged in how we tend to the youngest and sickest and most vulnerable,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat.

April Jennison: “It’s like you’re a firefighter, constantly trying to put out little fires. As soon as you put out one little fire, there’s another fire to put out.” (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

In Massachusetts today, around 30,000 low-income households are receiving cash assistance through Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or TAFDC. Nearly 20,000 additional households, primarily adults who are elderly or have disabilities, receive money from a program called Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children.

A family of three on TAFDC receives $593 a month, with the potential for another $40 housing subsidy. A single person on emergency aid for the elderly gets $303.

Neither program adjusts grants with inflation. TAFDC was last increased in 2000, and EAEDC in 1988.

Advocates point out that the grant has risen by 10 percent since 1988, from $539 to $593 for a family of three, in dollars not adjusted for inflation, while the costs of diapers, toilet paper, laundry detergent and gasoline have more than doubled. If the 1988 grant had been adjusted for inflation, it would be $1,169 today.

With the current grants, said Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute who is spearheading the campaign, “Families really struggle to pay for basic necessities.”

The bills, S.36/H.102, sponsored by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, and Decker would increase the grants for both programs to half the federal poverty level – a benchmark the federal government refers to as “deep poverty.” This would bring the grant to $905 a month for a family of three on TAFDC, and increase payments to $532 for a single person on EAEDC.

The bills envision phasing in the increase over four to five years, costing the state $21 million the first year and a similar amount in future years. The grants would then be indexed to half the federal poverty level, so that they keep pace with inflation.

Legislation that that folds recurring new spending obligations into the annual state budget can face a particularly uphill battle. But supporters of the effort say they have some grounds for optimism.

The bills were recently reported out favorably by the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities and are pending before the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees. They are the subject of strong lobbying by a coalition of dozens of organizations that includes the same groups who spearheaded the successful repeal of the welfare family cap at the beginning of this legislative session. The Senate bill has 34 cosponsors and the House bill has 85.

Advocates hope to get the policy included in this year’s budget, which lawmakers will begin work on next month.

“No matter how carefully you budget, $593 is just not enough to support a family of three in Massachusetts,” said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney of Greater Boston Legal Services. “We want to make sure that our safety net is playing the role it’s supposed to of actually supporting our families and our kids.”

Recipients of cash assistance are some of society’s poorest individuals, who qualify under strict income and asset eligibility guidelines.

Jennison was 21 when she unexpectedly got pregnant. She and her boyfriend were working low-wage retail jobs, at TJ Maxx and Home Depot, when Jennison was put on bedrest. The couple could no longer afford their apartment. Jennison moved in with her mother and applied for TAFDC.

Jennison’s daughter Kyleigh was born two months early, and spent two months in intensive care. When she came home, the family tried living with Jennison’s parents, then her boyfriend’s mother, but neither situation worked out. Jennison and the baby moved into a shelter.

Because of complications from her birth, Kyleigh was constantly sick. Jennison would get jobs – writing a manual for a software company or managing international accounts for a sewing machine company – then lose them when she took time off to care for Kyleigh. When she lost a job, she would reapply for benefits.

Living in Wareham without a car, Jennison couldn’t commute to community college, so she went $30,000 into debt to get an associate’s degree online.

Of her $491 monthly grant, 30 percent went to subsidized housing. She alternated which utility bills to pay, sometimes getting her phone shut off. By the second week of the month, her food supply would dwindle. When she could find transportation, she would go to a diaper supply program for low-income families or food pantry.

Jennison was finally able to get off benefits after meeting and moving in with her fiancé, who works 60 hours a week as a driver.

Jennison, now 37, grew up with parents who were disabled and on welfare. “Growing up aware of my circumstances, I vowed that would never be me, but it was me, it can be my kids and anyone’s kids,” she said of the generational cycle of poverty she was caught in.

Today, New Hampshire, whose benefit is pegged to 60 percent of the federal poverty level, is the only state with welfare payments that bring recipients above “deep poverty,” although California is phasing in an increase to that level. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nine states and Washington, DC, give higher grants than Massachusetts.

Katie Siwicki, 29, of Turners Falls, is another Massachusetts recipient, who has been on and off welfare for five years.

A full-time student at Greenfield Community College studying environmental conservation, she hopes her associate’s degree – which she plans to complete after one more semester – will let her get a job rehabilitating wild animals.

But as a single mom with two boys, ages three and seven, she has struggled. She’s worked as a waitress, gas station attendant, and supermarket clerk, but struggled to find work with the schedule she needs to watch her children.

She uses her grant – less than $600 a month – to pay bills for internet and phone, utilities, rent for subsidized housing, and car insurance. “By the time I get my payment, it’s already gone,” she said.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

A scholarship pays her tuition, but she can’t save money to buy her sons new shoes, a new jacket, or Christmas presents. If her grant were to increase, Siwicki said, “that would mean so much to me.”

Decker said the legislation will help 52,000 children while sending a message to people who are struggling “that we see you and we are doing everything we can to continue to support you.” She said a little extra money can help parents find a job or pursue education to move out of poverty, while giving their children the basics – clothes, food and medicine. “It takes more than sheer will to move out of poverty,” Decker said.