Compassion butted heads with budgets on Thursday as dozens of advocates for the homeless and poor confronted a list of possible cuts in welfare benefits and food stamps being considered by the state.
"This is morally reprehensible," Leroy Pelton, a UNLV professor and activist for the homeless, said during a three-hour public workshop. "You'll be denying food stamps to a child who is innocent."
Division of Welfare and Supportive Services staff had the workshop to discuss ways to curb costs. Such cuts are necessary, they said, because growth and difficult economic times have increased demand for public assistance while federal funding is set to decrease and state funding has remained stagnant.
"We have a certain amount of money to spend, and our spending currently exceeds what the available revenue is," said Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator of program services for the division. He added that the division's reserve funds are rapidly depleting.
Options for saving money included putting a cap on the number of household members eligible for assistance, including children, and disqualifying entire households from receiving food stamps if the head of household doesn't meet requirements such as looking for jobs.
Other ideas included evaluating welfare cases once a year instead of every six months and requiring a three-month assistance "sit-out" for families who don't meet requirements.
The division also is discussing whether to deny public assistance to entire households in which adult family members are not U.S. citizens or are living illegally in the country, regardless of whether their children are citizens.
"We're discriminating against children of citizens and qualified aliens by serving these other citizen children of illegal or non-qualified non-citizens," said Jeff Brenn, chief of eligibility and payments for the division.
He said a five-year limit on public assistance applies to children of citizens, while other children can receive it until they are 18 years old.
But the state is still researching the legality of such a disqualification, Brenn said.
Stagliano said the division was allocated $75 million to spend on its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 2008. Because of changes in federal funding, that budget will shrink to $72 million next year, he said.
Meanwhile, the division is on track to spend $81 million on the program this year and $87 million in 2009 if changes aren't made.
The division has been using reserve funds to make up the difference.
"We are spending beyond what our allocation is," Stagliano said.
How much money would be saved by adopting the proposals has not been determined, and Stagliano repeatedly emphasized that such ideas were merely at the "conversation" stage. A public hearing would precede adoption of any such changes.
"None of these changes are immediately going forward," he said.
But worried social workers and advocates for the homeless expressed unequivocal disdain for all of the possibilities with the exception of extending time between welfare case evaluations.
"Do you wonder what happens to those children?" asked Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Street homeless outreach program. "We are talking about kids. We want personal responsibility, but are we going to penalize the child?"
Terry Lindemann, executive director of Family Promise, a nonprofit that helps homeless families, said she was deeply concerned about the proposals.
"Cutting services to the poor will only deepen the crisis of homeless families, and it will trickle down to every level of our community," she said. "Our schools, shelters and food banks will be flooded with more people than can receive adequate services."
But Stagliano said such changes could motivate those receiving assistance to become more independent.
"Our mission in this program is really to transition individuals from public assistance dependency to a high level of self-sufficiency," he said.
Stagliano recognized that some of the proposals, particularly the "family cap," might not go over well.
"It's not everybody's favorite alternative," he said of the cap. But "how are you going to become self-sufficient if you continue to have more children?"
At least 25 states have adopted family caps, Stagliano said.
Pelton continued to question the wisdom of punishing entire families for parents who don't follow the rules.
"Why kick a child off of (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in order to get at the parent?" he said.
"What we're really trying to do is change the lifestyle of the family," Stagliano said. "The parents' lack of effort to try to change their status may be part of the problem here."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285.