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February 12, 2015

Low-Income Families Get a Boost from the Senate Budget Proposal

Virginia lawmakers face a set of choices when it comes to helping low-income families. They can use some leftover federal funding to make a meaningful investment in those families’ futures, divert it as a way to reduce general support for social services, or leave the extra money unused.

Among the investment choices: A one-time bump of $100 to help families buy back-to-school supplies and clothing. A small increase in the cash allowance that has been frozen for years despite the growing cost of food, rent and other goods and services. Providing a path for recovering substance users to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) if they pass certain screenings (however, despite the endorsement by the senate committees, the full Senate has already rejected this option). Additional support for Virginia’s community action agencies that help low-income families across the state build self-sufficiency, strong families, and strong communities.

These are all good things that the Senate Finance Committee proposed doing with some of the federal TANF funds that the state has accumulated. And it’s about time.

Lawmakers have consistently ignored the fact that inflation has made it harder for low-income families to make ends meet. The maximum TANF cash assistance for a family of three in Virginia currently is less than one-quarter of what it takes to keep a family above the poverty line. It’s also 27 percent below 1996 levels. By keeping benefits so low for so long lawmakers have accumulated a substantial pot of unused TANF funds—$47.5 million as of June 30, 2014, the end of the last fiscal year.

Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page about how to use these TANF funds. Some policymakers want to use those dollars, built up over time by keeping benefits low and access to them tight, like a little piggybank they can dip into every time they want to find a little money to make the budget balance. For instance, the only thing the House Appropriations Committee does with the “extra” TANF money is use it as an excuse to reduce other funding for social services.

The house committee included the proposed boost for Virginia’s community action agencies in its proposed budget amendments, but didn’t fund an increase in direct assistance for low-income families. And it refused to support the help for recovering substance users, despite strong support for doing so in another house committee. 

To be fair, House Appropriations is hardly alone in using the TANF funds as an excuse to reduce general fund support for social services rather than enhancing them. It’s so common a maneuver among Virginia budget writers, in fact, that there’s a word for it—“supplanting.” The governor does it, too. In his proposal he sweeps up $2.1 million as an excuse to reduce general fund support for social services while failing to make meaningful improvements in direct assistance for TANF recipients. And both the Senate Finance and House Appropriations proposals endorse and increase the amount of supplanting in the governor’s budget. The problem is that over time all that supplanting reduces the availability of funds to help low-income families.

But, at least this year – at least for now – the Senate Finance Committee gives low-income Virginians a little hope. Let’s hope some of it makes it all the way to the end of the budget process. Virginia’s lowest-income families have been passed by for too many years, and it’s time for everyone to do the right thing.

The Commonwealth Institute

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