May 22, 2013
States Ignoring Stimulus Welfare Fund
Posted on Sep 8, 2009
By Michael Grabell, Christopher Flavelle and Emily Witt, ProPublica
This article was previously published on ProPublica.
Word of the money spread quickly.
New York state had put hundreds of dollars in federal stimulus money into food stamp accounts, and if it wasn’t withdrawn by 4 p.m., 9 p.m., midnight—depending on the version of the rumor—it would disappear. So on a sultry August day, lines stretched at ATMs all over the state, a literal run on the bank.
The surprise cash—which was real, even though the deadlines weren’t—came from a little-known stimulus fund that economists say would directly help people hurt by the recession and be extremely effective at stimulating the economy.
The $5-billion emergency fund for needy families can be used to immediately create jobs for the unemployed, pay rent for families facing eviction, even repair someone’s car so they can get to work.
In New York, Gov. David Paterson came up with a creative solution that has been praised by economists and advocates for the poor. Unable to make the 20 percent match on its own, the state teamed up with philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Institute contributed $35 million so the state could access $140 million in stimulus money.
The money went straight to low-income families, who received $200 per child for back-to-school supplies and clothes. About 800,000 children were eligible.
But the chaos and allegations of abuse that followed illustrate how, in the heated debate over the stimulus, even the most lauded program can turn into the most lampooned overnight.
Critics say the state bungled it when it put no restrictions on how the money could be used. It also deposited it into the debit accounts of food stamp and welfare recipients without telling them it was there or what it was for until days later.
Rumors percolated that the money had to be taken out and spent right away. And store clerks began complaining that people were using the money for beer, lottery tickets, iPods and flat-screen TVs.
“They said, ‘Well, we have to get our money out of the ATM to buy school supplies,’” said Diane Goly, who owns a Sunoco gas station in Syracuse. “But as we were watching, people were taking the money to buy beer and cigarettes.”
Noah Lebowitz, spokesman for Monroe County in Rochester, said social-services investigators found that some people in its drug treatment programs received large amounts of cash.
“They have a very difficult time not spending it on drugs,” he said. “We were seeing people with drug abuse problems getting $1,000 in their bank account.”
Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the possible abuse of taxpayer dollars. Republican politicians railed against the lack of accountability and called it a rollback of welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s. But the program’s defenders said isolated cases have been overblown to stoke anger and play into the stereotype of welfare Cadillacs.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was created in 1997 to overhaul welfare and push recipients to find work rather than “living off the system.” As a result, welfare rolls dropped from 12 million in 1996 to less than 4 million in 2008, even though there had been little change in the national poverty and jobless rates before the current recession.
When the economic stimulus bill was passed in February, it created a new $5-billion emergency fund under TANF to help states whose welfare caseloads have grown during the recession. But it also encouraged the expansion of rarely-used efforts that any state can take advantage of—such as one-time cash payments to low-income families and temporary government-paid jobs programs similar to the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression.
In Perry County, Tenn., where roughly one of every four workers had been unemployed since January, the state used $5 million to create jobs for those laid off from an auto parts plant—clearing brush for the state highway department, painting murals, even baking turnovers at a pie factory. The county’s jobless rate dropped from a high of 27 percent in January to 19 percent in July.
Los Angeles County used $160 million to put together a jobs program intent on employing 10,000 people. The stimulus is picking up 100 percent of the workers’ salaries, because the state argued that additional costs to administer the program and supervise workers counts as the 20 percent.
Ken Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, said the agency expects more states to apply for the money. But Jack Tweedie, who’s been studying the TANF program for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said most states will take only enough to ensure that they won’t have to turn away new families who qualify for welfare. As much as $1 billion could be left on the table when the program ends in September 2010, he said.
“Virtually all the states are in really tough fiscal positions—they’ve been cutting, not expanding,” said Tweedie, director of the children and families program for the National Conference. “It’s hard to get policymakers to focus on new things when primarily what they have to do is cut things.”
Louisiana doesn’t plan to use any of the funds, despite the fact that one in five residents lives in poverty—the second highest in the nation. Sammy Guillory, deputy assistant secretary of Louisiana’s Office of Family Support, said even with the stimulus picking up 80 percent, the state can’t afford it.
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