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Will Alabama Say No to $500 Million and Hundreds of Thousands of Children?

By Shannon Mott

March 30, 2012

Family Budgets

It is no secret that states continue to struggle in the wake of the recession. February, however, saw some particularly alarming news out of Alabama that threatens the economic stability of hundreds of thousands of Alabama children.

In response to a proposed 25 percent cut in General Fund money for the state’s Department of Human Resources (DHR), DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner informed legislators that such a cut may result in the elimination of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the child support enforcement program. If this were to happen, Alabama would lose $141 million in federal funds along with $315 million generated in child support payments currently provided to Alabamians. In total, Alabama would lose close to $500 million. This would deeply affect the 54,000 Alabamians receiving TANF assistance- including 39,000 children- and over 218,000 Alabama families being served by the state’s child support enforcement program.

Alabama has one of the most restrictive TANF systems in America. As of 2005, a single parent with two children earning $3,229 annually – less than $270 a month – did not qualify for TANF in Alabama. Under federal poverty guidelines, a family of three earning less than $19,090 annually (more than five times the Alabama income threshold) is defined as living below the poverty level. According to federal standards, 30% or more of Alabama’s residents live in poverty with 1 in 10 Alabama children living in extreme poverty, meaning their families were surviving on less than $10,000 a year in 2010. Buckner estimates that of the families qualifying for TANF assistance in Alabama, the average payment is $189 per month.

While Alabama TANF (known as Family Assistance) may not serve all who are in need, it is a lifeline for those it does reach and helps families to meet the daily costs of living including paying rent, utilities, groceries, child care and more. TANF and child support enforcement are investments that directly benefit the state’s children and families.

The possible elimination of the state TANF and child support enforcement services resulted from the question of whether the state would be able to afford its TANF matching funds requirement. Critics say she is overstating the potential threat, but in order to receive federal TANF money, the state must contribute money from the General Fund- an addition $26.5 million- to maintain the current level of services which is unlikely considering the predicted deficit.

However, it is not just proposed state action that has put services to low-income Alabama families at risk. Until June 2011, Alabama was 1 of 17 states provided additional assistance through TANF Supplemental Grants. These grants were designed to bolster the funding levels in states with historically low support per person in poverty. But Congress allowed TANF Supplemental Grants to end last year. The loss of the Supplemental Grants combined with the fact that the TANF block grant was never adjusted for inflation since its inception in 1996 places Alabama and the 16 other affected states at a serious disadvantage nationally. Federal action is required to restore and reform this vital funding stream for families.

As an Alabamian, I say regardless of the delay in federal action, it’s time we make our citizens our priority. In times of drastic budget cuts and shortfalls, no state should be faced with ending programs that serve its most vulnerable families and children in order to accommodate spending cuts. Neither should states look to specifically eliminate services for the poor in an attempt to save money or balance the budget. The current threat to TANF and child support enforcement also coincides with a proposal to drastically restrict eligibility for our state children’s health program. Alabama must ensure that assistance is not denied our children and families who need it.

No one disputes that times are fiscally and economically tough. But the solution is not to deny support to children and their families during heightened times of need. It is time to take responsibility for our fellow Alabamians. Helping people in need helps us all. The solution to our fiscal problems should not cost vulnerable children and families their needed assistance and well-being.

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