It is disappointing when a good idea isn’t implemented. And when that idea has the potential to lift people out of poverty, it is more than disappointing, it’s devastating.
Two years ago, state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, managed to navigate HB 1433 into law, a bipartisan measure to establish a pilot program that would gradually reduce government assistance to a test pool of families as their income and financial situation improved.
The legislation, also called the Making Work Pay measure, proposed to track success by each individual’s progress toward earning a living wage, having savings in the bank, demonstrating savings behavior, not having excessive or inappropriate debt, and showing reduced dependence on government subsidies. The pilot with intensive, individualized case management was expected to involve 500 recipients of the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
The idea was to create a pathway for people to break the cycle of poverty without being punished for working, a penalty that is called the benefits cliff. Federal benefits generally allow a person to earn a certain amount of money and the next dollar above that threshold generally results in the recipient losing all benefits. This is catastrophic for many low-income people who abruptly could find themselves worse off — unable to buy groceries, pay the rent, or even fill up their car with gas to get to work.
Unfortunately, about the same time the bill passed in Austin, the Trump administration reduced the cap on income assistance eligibility to 130% of the poverty line, effectively stripping the authority of states to increase the amount of assets or revenue an individual or family can have (up to 200% of the federal poverty level) and still qualify for benefits. The irony is that Texas had expanded its income eligibility requirement to people earning up to 165% of the poverty line to provide the flexibility to serve more needy people, including elderly and disabled recipients.
The federal change made the benefits cliff even more devastating by categorizing people who were barely hanging on as ineligible for benefits. Anything these people earned — cash income from all sources, earned income (before payroll taxes are deducted), unearned income, such as cash assistance, Social Security, unemployment insurance and child support — all counted against the income threshold. Plus, many people were no longer eligible for certain federal health programs, such as Medicaid, leading to more under- and uninsured individuals and families.
However, the real death blow to the pilot program came when Catholic Charities Fort Worth and others sought a waiver from federal rules. After more than a year of haggling, federal officials decided that they couldn’t issue a waiver and that program changes would require congressional approval.
HB 1433 would have provided both a bridge and a safety net for those who demonstrate a serious commitment to escaping poverty. Now it is unclear what options exist beyond the uphill challenge of getting Congress to agree that a pilot program is worthy of consideration.
This program should not be allowed to wither on the vine. Addressing poverty is never easy, so it should be clear that innovative ideas are needed. This pilot program is an idea worth trying, as it very well could offer a model for how to help some people permanently escape the clutches of poverty. We urge the Biden administration to encourage new legislation that would allow the waiver so this program can go forward.
Originally from the Dallas Morning News