By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
A long-sought-after update to a cash-assistance program for the poor is among the bills the Indiana Catholic Conference is supporting at the Statehouse to aid the most vulnerable Hoosiers.
Legislation expanding income eligibility for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in Indiana unanimously passed the Senate in late January, another step toward a larger overhaul more than three decades in the making. Meanwhile, the ICC is also backing measures aimed at simplifying access to food stamps for older Indiana residents and the disabled, and assisting the estimated 30 percent of college students who face food insecurity.
“Catholic social teaching provides for options for the poor and vulnerable,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The ICC supports these bills to reduce food insecurity and to improve the lives of those in need. These efforts are extremely important as inflation continues to affect our population and many people are struggling to make ends meet.”
Across Indiana, Catholic Charities staff members are among those on the front lines who witness these needs every day. And the needs are growing.
In downtown Indianapolis, the food pantry located at the Catholic Center recently added Monday evening hours to accommodate those who work during the day but still cannot put enough food on the table.
“Food costs have risen so much that people’s budgets are being stretched to the limit,” said Stephanie Davis, director of the crisis office for Catholic Charities Indianapolis. “Forty percent of the people who come to us each week are new to us – people who have never had to depend on a food pantry before. They’re the people in the community who were always the Boy Scout leaders and softball coaches, the everyday people who always gave back to the community. Now they’re the ones coming in and needing help.”
Soaring costs of rent and other necessities contribute to the growing numbers of Hoosiers “barely scraping by,” Davis said.
One lifeline for the poorest of the poor is TANF, a federal program that provides block grants to the states to administer temporary cash-assistance payments and other services to families in deepest poverty. But too many Hoosier families face barriers in receiving that help because of outdated state guidelines.
Senate Bill 265, which passed the Indiana Senate Jan. 30 by a 45-0 vote, would change the income eligibility for a family of three to participate in the TANF program from 16 percent of the federal poverty rate to 50 percent by the end of 2027. The current federal poverty level stands at just over $23,000 for a family of three.
Under current state law, a family of three making more than $307 per month would not qualify for TANF. Senate Bill 265, authored by Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute), would increase the monthly income eligibility threshold in Indiana to $959 per month once fully enacted.
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.
“Expanding eligibility for families in need will help thousands of Hoosiers make their way out of poverty,” said Ford, who has promoted TANF-related legislation for years. “In addition to cash assistance, the TANF program provides job training, child care and transportation in order to eliminate many hurdles folks face when looking for higher-paying jobs.”
Senate Bill 265 is currently under consideration in the Indiana House of Representatives. A similar measure, House Bill 1160, is also moving through that chamber. This legislation represents the latest effort to modernize the TANF program in Indiana, which has seen only incremental changes in 35 years.
The ICC and its allies have been pushing for years for what they consider a long-overdue update to TANF in Indiana. That includes a meaningful increase to the $288 maximum monthly cash payment for a family of three in deep poverty – which has not been adjusted for inflation since 1988. In addition to expanding the eligibility threshold for TANF, Senate Bill 265 and House Bill 1160, authored by Rep. Edward Clere (R-New Albany), aim to address that issue.
The ICC and other advocates for the poor also support Senate Bill 334, which would simplify requirements for certain individuals applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. The measure, authored by Sen. Shelli Yoder (D-Bloomington), would streamline the process for individuals 60 years of age or older, or those with a disability, to apply for SNAP.
In addition, the ICC and its allies are tracking “Hunger-free campus” bills introduced in both chambers of the state legislature aimed at addressing food insecurity among college students. One in three students on college campuses in Indiana and across America face this issue, according to statistics from Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, an advocacy group affiliated with Feeding America.
Senate Bill 51, a bipartisan measure authored by Yoder and Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) and House Bill 1161, authored by Rep. Earl Harris, Jr. (D-East Chicago), would provide grants to state colleges and universities to help address hunger among students who attend these institutions.
For Davis of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, the help offered by this type of legislation cannot come quickly enough.
“Sometimes it’s beyond what the world comprehends of what food insecurity is,” said Davis, who also directs the Christmas Store for Catholic Charities Indianapolis. “We’re downtown at the Catholic Center, and I’ve got people coming 20 miles just to get food once a week. We’ve seen an increase in senior citizens coming in to get help, and we’ve seen college students who don’t have the financial means to provide food for themselves.
“It’s a huge need.”
To follow 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.