By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer
Misty McGee is stuck in the waiting game.
“I feel like I’m on hold. It’s really frustrating.”
Her biggest opponent is her own health. Cancer at a young age took her out of school life and into a hospital regimen that included two surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation treatments. Working against her are multiple disabilities that have hampered her attempts to secure gainful employment. Three years ago she escaped with her son from an abusive relationship and into shelter.
She got out of the shelter with the help of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF program. Now, with chronic health issues preventing her from working – she’s says her doctor has had her on medical leave for the past year and a half – she’s wading through the years-long process of getting Supplemental Security Income. As is the routine for the majority of applicants, Misty was denied in the first round. She believes that she could get back to work eventually, but the program — that in her own words has helped her so much — will not be there to provide child support should she look for and secure work. And the TANF JOBS program is mere shadow of it’s former self, leaving people with high barriers to employment, similar to Misty, on the bubble.
“I’m just going through the hoops right now,” she says.
This year, those hoops tightened dramatically, and will again on Oct. 1, when the pre-Supplemental Security and Disability Insurance for people unable to work will drop on average about $116 a month. With these cuts, a family of three, with one adult (the most common client household configuration for the program) who was receiving $637 a month, will receive after Oct. 1 only $506. It’s expected to impact nearly 700 families in Oregon.
This comes on the heels of massive state budget cuts to the network of TANF programs intended to help people get jobs and out of the welfare system.
“I would have already started looking for some part-time work if they would have had the child care or JOBS (assistance),” Misty says, her leg in a cast. “You can’t afford to look for a job if you’re not going to get help for those things. It’s just physically not possible. It’s going to cause people to stay on TANF even longer. When you think about it, the JOBS program is so people go back to work, and when they go back to work they need help for child care. It just doesn’t make sense. Those are the two keys to getting people off TANF.”
As Oregon’s primary program for poor families with children, TANF provides cash assistance to help cover the basic needs, along with job training and skills programs to help people get into the workforce. But with a maximum 5-year assistance period, TANF was never designed to be a lifelong support system.
There are essentially two ways of moving off TANF — either by attaining gainful employment for those who can work, or by transitioning to the federally funded Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for people who, either because of age or physical or mental disability, cannot work.
In the spring session, the Oregon Legislature cut funding for the JOBS program by 51 percent, reducing services to target only those considered “job ready” or “near job ready.” Those with more complex barriers to employment are less likely to receive the program’s trainings and job services. And those who do get into the employment program are now limited to just two months of training and job search services. Transportation services to and from interviews and work, and child care were also drastically reduced and eliminated for some clients.
For those unable to work who are engaged in the years-long wait for SSI or SSDI approval, they will see the reduction in the family pre-SSI/SSDI payments, which was a stipend to help families cover costs, and in some cases even avoid full TANF enrollment altogether. This program serves individuals with severe physical and/or mental impairments, who are unable to work, that meet Social Security disability criteria. It also provides clients professional assistance through the SSI and SSDI application and appeals process, which takes on average about three years.
“As one might imagine, these clients, they have very little income and very little resources, so any reduction in their resources is going to have an impact,” said Erika Miller, program manager of the state family pre-SSI/SSDI program.
The pre-SSI/SSDI program is also a gateway for people to begin the application process for the federal supplements, a process that, as Misty is experiencing, takes years of paperwork and patience.
Miller says that that component remains intact.
“That service is immeasurably valuable because the process for applying can be especially onerous,” Miller said.
The cuts to the TANF JOBS program, and related child care and transportation that began July 1 have already washed up casualties.
Rachel Post, director of Supportive Housing and Employment with Central City Concern (CCC), oversees the transition of families from tragedy to self-sustainment. The program operates 85 units of drug- and alcohol-free housing for families reunited after foster care, sobriety, disability and unemployment, and after 10 years, has an impressive track record of getting families reunited, parents employed, and families back to independence. Last year, nearly half of those in the program went into their own permanent housing beyond CCC. It’s an intensive support program that works entirely with families reliant on TANF support.
“It really takes a long time for these families, who may have led pretty impaired lives for many years of intergenerational poverty, to get back on their feet,” Post says.
“The cuts in child care and transportation in the JOBS program has made it tremendously difficult for us to help families continue with their educational programs.”
Post can list off the losses: A mother who was one test away from completing her GED but without child care could not take the last test; several others who to drop out of the JOBS program for lack of child care. “They can’t leave their children while they’re out looking for jobs.”
In one case, a child was sent back to foster care after the family lost TANF’s wraparound supports.
“The system has invested so much in these families to get them into clean and sober housing and their children returned from foster care, that to just leave them without the supports they need to complete their journey into self-sufficiency, it just makes no sense,” Post said.
This spring, County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury authored a resolution decrying the devastating impact the state’s proposed cuts to TANF would have on Multnomah County residents. Now three months into the cuts, Kafoury says she expects to see the strain build on the county’s social service partners. She’s already heard anecdotal stories, and expects more to build as more families lose support.
“It will be mostly through our community partners that we will be seeing the effect of these cuts, as people lose their child care and housing subsidies. We know that people will be calling and coming to their doors,” Kafoury said. “The other areas, people are going to feel the need to help the families that have the lowest barriers and the most easily transitioned to get their numbers up. So the higher barrier families are going to have a hard time getting the services they need.
“These are the families that have needs in so many other areas that we should be focusing on. Those are the folks that are going to be coming to the county. We’re going to be seeing them at the shelters and in line at other services.”
Thacher Schmid is a family advocate with Bridges to Housing, which works with dozens of families across Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties facing high barriers to employment, housing and stability. The latest round of TANF cuts are only compounding what has been a series of reductions to the families in their care.
“All of these cuts effect different families,” Schmid said. “But when so many levels of DHS are getting cut at the same time it really affects a lot of families.
“Every single family has a difficult history, a unique thumbprint,” Schmid said. “For one family losing employment-related daycare is a devastating cut. For another losing the jobs program may be devastating.”
“I want to emphasize that the sky is not falling, but when you spend money on programs like Bridges to Housing, or pre-SSI, you can save the community money in prisons, emergency rooms or other areas. These cuts, I suspect, are going to come around again in other ways,” Schmid said. “I just hope that the people who represent the taxpayers and the voters in the state legislature can understand how important this is in that some of these cuts may cost everybody more in the long run.”
Kafoury said the county is ready to defend its client needs in Salem.
“We are not going to go down peacefully at the county. We’re really prepared to make our case at the next legislative session, and engage our legislators at a different level than in the past. There’s just definitely a disconnect, between what’s going on in Salem and what people are feeling on the ground.”