Report: R.I.’s family assistance benefit program needs improvement

By Elizabeth Graham -April 24, 2019 9:32 am

PROVIDENCE – Safety net benefits for low income families with children under 18 in Rhode Island have not increased for nearly 30 years, and have fallen below the federal poverty level, according to a report released this week by the Economic Progress Institute.

The Rhode Island Works program, which is operated by the R.I. Department of Human Services, receives funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The Ocean State’s time limits on accessing TANF assistance are the most restrictive in New England and Rhode Island is one of just eight states to have a periodic time limit for families to receive benefits or services, the research organization also found.

“There are a number of areas in which we can do a better job with the Rhode Island Works program,” Linda Katz, policy director and co-founder of the Economic Progress Institute, said. “This is supposed to be the basic safety net program for very poor families, and there have been policies put in place that have closed the door to very needy children and their parents.”

Rhode Island Works replaced the Family Independence Program 11 years ago, instituting time limits on benefits and a work requirement for recipients.

“They were mostly parents with barriers to employment, so it made no sense from a policy perspective,” Katz said.

Finding employment is required for acceptance into the program, but many parents who apply are not ready to work for a variety of reason. Many have little or no job skills, behavioral or physical problems, and some are homeless or illiterate. Although Rhode Island Works offers education and training to prepare adults for work, time limits on welfare services can make it difficult for people to find a job before their benefits expire, the report says.

Rhode Island imposes a 48-month lifetime limit on accessing TANF benefits, and a limit of 24 months in a 60-month period, although extensions are granted in some cases. Massachusetts has no lifetime limit on TANF benefits and the rest of New England states have a lifetime limit of 60 months, according to the report. Massachusetts has a 24-month periodic limit for non-exempt families, but allows families to file for extensions. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont do not have periodic limits.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has proposed eliminating Rhode Island’s 24-month periodic limit.

“We are very strongly supportive of that change because we think it will improve the way the program is run for the families and it will allow the parent to access the work readiness services that she needs,” Katz said.

About 4,100 families, including 7,200 children and 2,800 adults receive assistance from Rhode Island Works. About 58% of families enrolled are headed by a single parent.

The monthly Rhode Island Works assistance rate for a family of three is $554, an amount set in 1991, according to the report. Adjusted for inflation, the rate should be $1,036, the report concluded.

Combined with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits of $504 per month, yearly income for a three-person family dependent on  is $1,058, nearly $200 less than the federal poverty level.

The report also recommended the use of state money to strengthen existing programs, and re-evaluating enrollment standards to allow more families to enroll for benefits.

In 2017, just 30 out of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance, the Economic Progress Institute found.

There are currently roughly 300,000 Rhode Islanders receiving some form of state and federal benefits, according to the DHS.