By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic newspapers
The Indiana Catholic Conference is out front on a number of bills at the Statehouse that would affect individuals and families considered among the poorest of the poor in the state.
Leaders of the ICC – the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana – support some of the proposed legislation while opposing other bills, in line with the long history of Catholic social teaching with respect to the most vulnerable.
“Some of these bills would benefit families in the greatest need and help lift them out of poverty, while we have serious concerns that others may have the opposite effect,” said Angela Espada, executi,ve director of the ICC. “We always want to stand with the most economically disadvantaged among us, especially our children.”
The ICC strongly supports House Bill 1361, a bipartisan measure that would strengthen protections for those who qualify for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF is a federal program that provides grants to states to administer cash-assistance payments to families in deepest poverty.
But those families often face barriers in receiving that help because of outdated state guidelines, according to Rep. Chuck Goodrich (R-Noblesville), the primary author of House Bill 1361. That includes the current asset limit of $1,000 for families qualifying for TANF to continue receiving those temporary benefits, which have a lifetime cap of 24 months for adults.
The measure that Goodrich calls “hand-up legislation” would increase that asset limit to $10,000 – and would exempt $20,000 of total equity value of the family’s motor vehicles from eligibility guidelines. Because these families need reliable transportation for getting to and from work and child care services, this provision is critical, according to the ICC, other advocates and co-authors of the legislation.
“This bill allows people to better themselves and stay on the program until they are in a position to no longer need assistance,” said Rep. Cherrish Pryor (D-Indianapolis), among the co-authors of House Bill 1361 and a longtime collaborator with Rep. Goodrich on TANF-related legislation.
The bill passed unanimously Jan. 20 in the House committee on Family, Children and Human Affairs, and is now awaiting action by the full House of Representatives.
A broader TANF-related bill backed by the ICC and other advocates for the poor, including the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, was awaiting a committee hearing at press time. Senate Bill 327 marks the latest attempt to update major provisions of the TANF program in Indiana, which hasn’t seen substantive change in more than three decades.
As in previous years, Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute) is leading the charge to modernize TANF in Indiana by pushing for the first monthly increase in cash payouts in 34 years and dramatically expanding eligibility for the program.
For those in deepest poverty, TANF’s cash-assistance payments are lifelines. But those monthly payouts – $288 for a family of three, for example – have not been increased since they were set by state law three decades ago.
Moreover, only a fraction of the poorest families in Indiana currently receive even those modest benefits from the federal program because of outdated eligibility guidelines – another issue that Senate Bill 327 is designed to address.
Indiana’s eligibility level for TANF is the fourth-lowest in the United States, behind Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. To be eligible for TANF, the maximum income of a Hoosier family must be less than 17 percent of the federal poverty level. 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.
While the ICC and its allies continue to advocate for these long-awaited changes, they are working to oppose another TANF-related measure. House Bill 1410 would transfer oversight of the mandatory job-search guideline for TANF eligibility to the state level from the local level, where it is currently administered.
ICC leaders argue that local agencies providing support services for families in deep poverty are best equipped to understand each family’s unique needs and circumstances and, therefore, are in the best positions to oversee and monitor their job-search activities.
“We want to be clear that we are not opposed to the concept of the applicant job-search requirement, as the Church greatly values the dignity and transformative power of work,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC. “Our primary concern is based on the Church’s understanding of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be made at the lowest competent level, especially when decisions affect the poor and most vulnerable.”
Jessica Fraser, an advocate for the poor who has worked on TANF-related issues for 10 years, shared similar concerns with legislators about House Bill 1410.
“This bill doesn’t really change policy,” said Fraser, director of the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, formerly the Indiana Institute for Working Families. “But it changes the state’s ability to be flexible when people are going through tough times.”
To follow this and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.