By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Editor’s note: As we were going to press, we learned that Senate Bill 233 passed in the Senate by a vote of 43-5. It now moves to the state House of Representatives for consideration.
Life has changed dramatically since 1988; when the Internet was still in development; the average rent was $420 per month; and gas cost 96 cents a gallon.
But one thing has remained frozen in time: the $288 Hoosier families in deep poverty receive monthly to help them temporarily in the most dire circumstances. That monthly amount was set in 1988 at $288 by state law – and so it remains 33 years later.
Indiana lawmakers and advocates for the poor – including the Catholic Church – are continuing efforts to change this reality. Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute) is leading the charge to modernize the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is funded by a block grant from the federal government. Ford said only six in 100 of the poorest families in Indiana currently receive those modest cash benefits from the federal program because of outdated eligibility guidelines – another issue that Senate Bill 233 is designed to address.
Indiana’s eligibility level for TANF is the fourth-lowest in the United States, behind Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. In a Jan. 25 hearing before the Senate Family and Children’s Services Committee, Ford pointed out that to be eligible for TANF, the maximum income of a Hoosier family must be less than 17 percent of the federal poverty level.
“The poverty level for a family of three is around $20,000,” Ford said. “So what a family in the state of Indiana has to meet to qualify for TANF is roughly $3,400 in annual income. States around us like Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan have eligibility levels of a little over $10,000 for a family of three.” Indiana set its income requirements to qualify for TANF in the mid-1990s when welfare reform was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Those eligibility guidelines have not been adjusted for inflation since then.
Among other provisions, Senate Bill 233 would increase monthly TANF payment amounts – for a family of three, from $288 to $513 – and modify them annually using Social Security cost-of-living adjustment rates.
If enacted, the legislation also would update TANF eligibility guidelines to enable far more Hoosiers to take advantage of the program, which also includes intensive job training assistance and other services to lift people out of poverty for good.
Senate Bill 233 passed out of committee 6-2 and is now headed to the full body of the Senate for a vote. The bill has a broad base of support, including from the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC).
“We are in favor of this bill for a variety of reasons based on Catholic social teaching,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “From the standpoint of solidarity, when our brothers and sisters are in need, we must do what we can to help them. Beyond the cash benefits, which are certainly critical, TANF also promotes the dignity of workers, from providing job training to helping with transportation to work, uniforms and other necessities. Especially considering the devastation that many families have gone through because of the coronavirus pandemic, the needs are greater than ever.”
One of the staunchest supporters of modernizing TANF is the Indiana Institute for Working Families, which for years has been promoting legislation like Senate Bill 233. To bring home the point that it has been more than three decades since TANF was updated in Indiana, Jessica Fraser, program manager for the organization, routinely shows lawmakers a photo of herself from 1988 – when she was seven years old.
“We need to make this change,” said Fraser, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis. “Families in Indiana need this and have needed it for a long while. TANF is the only program for families in deep poverty to have cash in their pocket so that they can take care of their day-to-day needs that aren’t covered by other programs. Income matters for families.”
To follow this and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org.