BOSTON (State House News Service) - Of the over 7,000 bills lawmakers filed in the last month, anti-poverty advocates are pushing to ensure increases in direct cash assistance to low-income families is one of the few hundred that will cross the finish line this session.
Over a hundred advocates and lawmakers met Thursday to lobby for new legislation filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Sal DiDomenico (HD 507 / SD 501) focused on "lifting kids out of deep poverty." The legislation would raise maximum cash assistance grants by 25 percent a year until they reach half of the federal poverty level.
Similar bills drew support from a majority of members of the House and Senate last session, but the bills died in committees, with the state awash in revenues, without ever reaching the House or Senate floors for debate.
The federal poverty level is currently $2,072 per month for a family of three. Families are considered to be in "deep poverty" if they bring in less than half that amount, or $1,036, every month.
Elderly and disabled individuals who qualify for Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children Program currently receive a maximum $364 per month, and couples receive a maximum $486. In 2023, the deep poverty line in the U.S. for an individual is $608 per month and $822 for a couple.
Cash assistance grants through Transition Aid to Families with Dependent Children have a current maximum of $783 per month for a family of three -- a 25 percent increase would bring this number to $979 per month, still shy of, but closer to, the cutoff of $1,036 families need to bring in each month to not be considered in deep poverty.
The bill would continue to raise the maximum grant by 25 percent for both these programs until they reach the deep poverty threshold, adjusted each year by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Though it's a moving target, the increases would cost the state "in the range" of $100 million, said Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney Deborah Harris, who leads the Lift Our Kids Coalition that hosted Thursday's event.
"It's complicated, because the caseloads are always in flux. There's no way to predict what the caseload would be in fiscal year 2024 or fiscal year 2025," Harris said.
Currently, there are 39,000 families with over 70,000 children who receive cash assistance in Massachusetts. Additionally, 12,000 seniors and 17,500 people with disabilities receive these grants from the state.
The Legislature has approved cash assistance grant increases three times in the last two years, in January 2021 by 10 percent, in July 2021 by 9.1 percent and in October 2022 by 10 percent. Prior to January 2021, an increase was not granted for EAEDC since 1988, Harris said.
"Cash is critically important for families, because you can't pay rent with food stamps. You can't buy a bus ticket with food stamps, and you can't buy shoes for your children with food stamps," she said. "The other thing to point out is providing cash to families is the most efficient way of helping families. There's virtually no overhead and benefits can be distributed extremely efficiently."
Decker said with lawmakers having filed over 7,000 bills already this session, it is the job of supporting lawmakers and advocates to fight for cash assistance that would "change people's lives for the better."
"When families who are struggling have more resources, they struggle less -- when families have more cash, to be very clear. I'm talking cash, not vouchers," Decker said. "They make the same choices about how to take care of their families and improve the health outcomes of their families."
Newly-elected Rep. Shirley Arriaga of Chicopee said this extra money could mean a family can make rent, buy new coats or shoes, or enroll their children in extracurricular activities to enrich their lives outside of school.
DiDomenico and Decker filed legislation last year to increase cash assistance grants by 20 percent until reaching half of the federal poverty level while providing for annual increases to account for inflation. Ninety-six representatives signed on as co-sponsors in the House while 26 lawmakers in the Senate endorsed the bill, but the House and Senate bills never made it out of their respective Ways and Means committees.
When asked why the newest version of this bill is now calling to raise cash assistance grants by 25 percent, DiDomenico said largely because of inflation over the last calendar year, as well as a widening wealth gap in the state.
"People need help now," he said. "We're at a point now where we're going to need some big, bold increases to make a big difference."
Written By Sam Drysdale/SHNS