This morning, a State Legislative breakfast was sponsored by the Attleboro District St. Vincent de Paul Society Voice of the Poor Committee for Social Justice. The main theme was poverty.
One of the questions that was central on everyone's mind is: what has the Legislature done to help people living in poverty? What has been done about housing?
This column attempts to answer some of what has been done by the House. This is not all that is done as Reps often do one-to-one case work and advocacy for constituents.
Economic Assistance and Welfare Reform
On November 6, the House passed the Act to Foster Economic Independence, a $20 million bill containing in it $11 million to create the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program. This program provides numerous resources including job training, education and employment-matching programs to help welfare recipients achieve financial independence. The program requires applicants to search for employment before they receive cash assistance, replacing current regulations in which recipients have 60 days to find a job, but allows for temporary benefits while awaiting placement.
The $20 million bill also appropriates increased funds for the Department of Transitional Assistance
(DTA), including $3 million to hire additional caseworkers, the Department of Early
Education & Care, and the Department of Career Services. In addition to
educational programs included in the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program, the
legislation provides an additional $1 million for the High Demand Scholarship
program and requires the DTA to create a financial literacy program regarding
the use of benefit cards, bank accounts and savings for higher education.
Moreover, the legislation aids parents and families in numerous ways including:
- Allocates $5 million for childcare subsidies for low-income families;
- Makes individuals participating in the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program eligible for childcare vouchers;
- Strengthens assistance for pregnant teens.
To help welfare
recipients maintain economic stability while working towards independence, the
bill includes an asset development program that allows individuals to save up
to $5,000 for housing and education. These funds would not be counted against
the existing $2,500 asset limit.
What About Welfare Fraud?
An Act to Foster Economic Independence builds on the House’s ongoing commitment to preventing welfare fraud and closing loopholes that encourage individuals to remain on welfare through numerous provisions:
- Expands the scope of prohibited EBT transactions to include foreign transmittal agencies to prevent the use of EBT cards for international wire transfers;
- Requires the DTA to notify recipients who have not used benefits or have high balances, and subsequently requires the DTA to expunge or recoup funds;
- Codifies regulations mandating that SNAP benefits are for household use only as a means to prevent overseas food shipments;
- Requires the DTA to create a fraud detection program to analyze risk and refer cases to the Bureau of Program Integrity for investigation;
- Requires self-declarations to be signed under the penalties of perjury and prohibits self-declarations from being used as the only verification of eligibility;
- Allows state agencies to disclose tax forms for eligibility determination;
- Reduces the time period
that results in a presumption of abandonment of Massachusetts residency.
What about Housing?In November, the Legislature also passed final legislation authorizing $1.4 billion in capital spending over the next five years to fund the production and preservation of affordable housing in the Commonwealth.
This is the first long-term housing finance bill to come before the Legislature since 2008 and includes $500 million for the rehabilitation and modernization of state-assisted public housing.
The legislation establishes the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund to provide grants to non-profit childcare organizations for capital improvements to their facilities. Eligible providers must reserve at least 25 percent of their childcare slots for families receiving a public subsidy.
plan also allows for development projects within a half-mile of a mass transit
hub to be eligible for funding by expanding the definition of transit-oriented
development in the MassWorks Infrastructure Program.
bill also includes:
- $55 million for a home modification program for blind and severely disabled homeowners;
- $47 million for a loan program to provide community-based or supportive housing for individuals with mental illness or intellectual disabilities;
- $38 million for a loan program for community-based or supportive housing for individuals with disabilities who are institutionalized or at risk of being institutionalized;
- $305 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to create and preserve affordable housing for households at or under 110 percent of the area median income;
- $135 million to the Housing Stabilization and Investment Trust Fund for acquisition, preservation and rehabilitation of affordable housing;
- $50 million for a five-year grant program within the Department of Housing and Community Development to test cost-effective revitalization methods for family and elderly-disabled public housing;
- $80 million to the Housing Innovations Trust Fund to support innovative and alternative forms of housing;
- $100 million to the Capital Improvement and Preservation Trust Fund to purchase housing whose affordability restrictions have expired or are expiring;
- $45 million to develop residential housing and mixed-use and transit-oriented developments; and,
- $45 million for the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Fund.
What Is The House Considering?The House is now considering three more big policy items. The details of these are not yet drafted so I will leave the discussion at the level of just identifying that these are issues that are being considered right now.
- Raising the minimum wage (possibly indexing it to inflation, and possibly having several wage hikes over the next few years)
- Unemployment insurance reform
- Earned paid sick-time