Welfare officials tighten assistance eligibility

State welfare officials on Tuesday adopted one controversial change in policy and sidelined another after hearing testimony from advocates for the poor, who called both measures punitive and immoral.

Nancy Ford, administrator of Nevada’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, rejected a proposal that would have taken food stamps from entire households, including children, when the head of the household failed to meet requirements such as attending employment workshops.

“My concern with this item is the way the economy is right now,” Ford said during a public hearing, which was teleconferenced between Carson City and the Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. “It will always be an option to consider in the future, but this would be too much of a hardship” on families right now.

But Ford approved a separate proposal to require those who don’t meet agreements such as attending classes or looking for jobs to “sit out” of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for three months. Previously, people kicked off welfare for not meeting agreements could reapply the next month.

Advocates for the poor were opposed to both measures, but were especially outraged by the food stamp proposal.

“This is so reprehensible I don’t know where to begin,” Leroy Pelton, a UNLV professor and activist for the homeless, said during the hearing that stretched to several hours.

Pelton and others said the proposal would punish children in an attempt to change their parents’ behavior.

Ford said the adopted public assistance “sit-out” was not designed to save the division money, but instead meant to encourage welfare beneficiaries to comply with their Personal Responsibility Plans.

Those basically are contracts between the division and recipients that outline steps the recipients must take toward self-sufficiency.

Federal law requires most public assistance beneficiaries to meet requirements such as participating in work-related activities for 30 hours per week, Ford said.

States can lose federal grant money if recipients aren’t meeting those requirements.

“There are certain people out there who have learned how to play the system and know how to get their benefits with doing the minimal amount of work,” Ford said.

“If they put as much effort into work as they put into getting benefits, they’d probably be very successful in the work force.”

But some worried that forcing families off public assistance for months at a time would increase homelessness and end up costing communities more.

“This is going to impact all levels of our community, our schools, our emergency rooms, our sheltering systems,” said Terry Lindemann, director of Family Promise, a program that helps homeless families. “Who’s going to take care of those children because their parents are judged non-compliant?”

Constance Brooks, a senior management analyst for Clark County in the county manager’s office, said the change would wind up costing the county.

“The impact would be the direct result of the increase in homelessness,” Brooks said. “In order to mitigate that situation, Clark County Family Services will be faced with the necessity of providing emergency cash assistance to those households.”

The county also could end up footing the bill for medical expenses incurred by the adults whose “sit-outs” include being kicked off Medicaid for three months.

The public assistance “sit-outs” could begin as early as October.

Ford on Tuesday also rejected a proposal that would have changed the amount of wages counted against people when determining welfare eligibility after they find jobs.

A separate measure making similar changes to Medicaid eligibility moved forward.

More changes to Nevada welfare could be in the pipeline.

The division is looking for ways to curb costs as federal funding decreases and state funding remains stagnant.

Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator of program services for the division, said earlier this year that 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, he said.

The division has been using reserve funds to make up the difference.

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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