By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Two bills aimed at strengthening families and lifting people out of poverty are top priorities for the Indiana Catholic Conference and numerous allies as the 2023 legislative session enters its final phase.
Senate Bill 265, a long-sought-after update to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in Indiana, was scheduled for a pivotal hearing in the House Ways and Means committee at press time. Meanwhile, House Bill 1290, which would boost Indiana’s earned income tax credit for married couples and families, is awaiting further action in the Senate.
Efforts to modernize the TANF program in Indiana are more than three decades in the making. A lifeline for the poorest of the poor, TANF is a federal government program that provides block grants to the states to administer temporary cash assistance payments, along with job training and other services for families in deepest poverty. But too many Hoosier families face barriers in receiving that help because of outdated state guidelines.
In testimony before the House committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs earlier this month, the ICC joined other supporters of Senate Bill 265 in making a strong case for finally passing this legislation.
“The expansion of the TANF program is long overdue,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The small number of the poorest families who currently qualify for this program are but a fraction of the neediest families in our state. Direct cash assistance to the most vulnerably poor Hoosiers is an investment in human dignity.
“The TANF program has the potential to protect and strengthen family life, and encourage and reward work – all while preserving a basic safety net for the most vulnerable.”
Senate Bill 265, which passed the Indiana Senate unanimously in late January, would aid the neediest Hoosier families in two ways:
- It would expand TANF eligibility guidelines so that more people could qualify and then benefit from the federal program.
- It would increase the amount of the monthly cash payout that families receive, which has not been updated since 1988
Indiana’s current eligibility level for TANF is the fourth-lowest in the United States, behind Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. 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.
To be eligible for TANF today in Indiana, a family can earn no more than 16 percent of the federal poverty rate, which stands at just over $23,000 for a family of three. Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute), the author of Senate Bill 265, painted a stark picture for House committee members during the March 16 hearing.
“This means that if you make $400 a month currently, you won’t qualify for this program,” said Ford, who has brought forth legislation to modernize TANF every year since 2019. The lawmaker added that only seven percent of applications for TANF were approved in Indiana in 2022.
Ford’s bill would increase the eligibility level for TANF from 16 percent of the federal poverty rate to 50 percent, while also raising the monthly payment that eligible families receive. For a family of three, that would mean a jump from the $288 set 35 years ago to $513 a month.
“It’s been 1988 since we’ve updated that amount,” Ford told House lawmakers. “Just imagine the last two years alone and the inflation that we’ve had.”
Ford emphasized that TANF money flows from the federal government; no state budget appropriation is required. Moreover, he said that, because of the outdated state guidelines for implementing TANF, more than $50 million in the block grant has been left unused over the past five years.
“This is why I keep bringing this bill and keep pushing it,” Ford said. “We have a lot of people suffering, and we have the money to help serve them.”
Following Ford’s testimony, along with that of the ICC and numerous allies, Senate Bill 265 unanimously passed the House Family, Children and Human Affairs committee. The next stop was the House Ways and Means committee, where, for reasons that continue to perplex advocates for the poor, TANF legislation has hit roadblocks in recent years.
“We are very optimistic that it will move forward this time,” said Erin Macey, director of the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, before the bill was scheduled to be heard in Ways and Means earlier this week.
In a prior role advocating for mothers and babies in Indiana locations with high infant mortality rates, Macey witnessed many situations that TANF support could have alleviated.
“There are moments in the life of a family when they have an episode of need,” Macey said. “For example, they may be working and suddenly a pregnancy is high-risk and Mom can no longer work. Or child care falls through – and there are so many families for whom child care is a barrier to employment. Transportation can also be a huge issue.”
Macey recalled the case of a pregnant woman suffering from severe morning sickness whose employer placed her on unpaid family leave.
“She lost everything,” Macey said. “She lost her housing, she lost her car, she lost her insurance. There just wasn’t support there. (We see with TANF) that a small, well-timed investment in the life of a family can have an outsized impact.”
Macey’s organization – along with the ICC, the United Way and other advocates – stand in support of another key bill moving through the legislature. House Bill 1290 proposes a number of changes to Indiana’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which would offer greater tax relief for low-to-moderate-income Hoosiers.
Authored by Rep. Chuck Goodrich (R-Noblesville) – also a longtime supporter of TANF legislation – the bill would better align the state tax credit with the federal credit; eliminate the current marriage penalty; and extend credits for larger families, including those with foster children.
“The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs, in particular for families with children,” Goodrich said during recent testimony on the bill before the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy committee. “By providing additional income to low-and-moderate-income workers, the EITC helps ensure that these people can meet their basic needs and support their families.”
Mingus, who also testified at the March 21 committee hearing, expressed the ICC’s support for the legislation on many levels.
“This is a pro-family policy,” Mingus said. “It delivers targeted assistance to help those with lower incomes – who are most impacted by high inflation. In addition, we shouldn’t have married couples receiving a smaller tax credit than those filing individually. The fact that married couples would no longer be penalized from a tax standpoint sends an important message.”
At press time, House Bill 1290 was awaiting further discussion in the Senate the final week of March. Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, said it is important for the Catholic faithful to stay engaged as the 2023 General Assembly, expected to conclude in late April, enters its last critical phase.
“We encourage people to contact their legislators and ask them to support these important bills that will assist those in need,” Espada said.
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.