This article originally appeared on MassLive
New Bedford resident Tanisha Ferrer has received welfare benefits for the last year.
Her 7-year-old son, who has social and emotional problems, was expelled from school, and she had to take time off work to help him get into the right school, therapy and activities. At 27, she is a single mother finishing her associate’s degree at Fisher College. She recently started working as a YMCA residential case manager.
Ferrer’s benefits include $419 a month in cash and $210 in food stamps. She lives in subsidized housing.
She had to pay for a car to get to school, work and appointments. Money went to toilet paper, soap, rent and food. She sometimes had to ask family and friends for an extra few dollars.
“Toward the end of the month, there will be days I don’t eat to make sure (my son) eats, because that’s my son. I have to make sure that he has,” Ferrer said.
The same coalition that successfully lobbied to lift a welfare cap on children born while their family was on welfare is now lobbying for a new bill, H.102/S.36, sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge, and Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, that would substantially increase state welfare benefits.
“Families can’t make ends meet,” said Deborah Harris, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and one of the coalition’s leaders. “They can’t pay for food when their food stamps run out, they can’t pay for laundry, they can’t buy their child a pair of shoes, they can’t pay for the additional expenses that school aged kids have in order to purchase a school activity.”
Today, the maximum welfare grant for a family of three in Massachusetts is $593 a month. The federal definition of “deep poverty,” which is half the federal poverty level, is a family of three with an income of less than $889 a month.
The size of Massachusetts’ welfare grant has not increased since 2000.
The legislation would raise the size of the benefit by 10% a year until it reaches $889 a month — half the federal poverty level. Advocates estimate that this will take four years and cost the state an extra $15 million each year. Once the benefit reaches 50% of the federal poverty level, it would be automatically adjusted to remain at that level as the federal poverty level rises with inflation.
In some families that receive welfare, adults are not working. Others work but earn very little money — to be eligible, a family of three living in private housing must have a monthly income of less than $633.
“Currently, families are trying to survive on only about one-third of the federal poverty level, and it just doesn’t add up no matter how carefully a parent tries to budget in a high-cost state like Massachusetts,” said Naomi Meyer, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services and a coalition leader.
The federal government gives states some money to pay for welfare benefits, but states have discretion to determine the size of the benefits. There are at least eight states with higher benefits than Massachusetts, including Connecticut ($698 a month maximum for a family of three), Vermont (increasing to $700 in August), New York ($789) and New Hampshire ($1,066).
“With the grants we provide them, people are really treading water,” Decker said. “Some people aren’t treading, some people are drowning. … Bringing them up to deep poverty is about throwing them a life jacket and letting them hold on and take a breath.”
Decker said about 29,000 families would benefit from the first year of the increase, including 52,000 children.
At a hearing before the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday, several health care providers testified about the difficulties poor children face.
Dr. Eileen Fisk, director of pediatrics at Lynn Community Health Center, talked about a baby she saw with bad diaper rash. Fisk gave the baby cream and advised the mother to change her daughter’s diaper more often. “The mom burst into tears,” Fisk said. “She couldn’t afford to buy more diapers.”
Boston Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Sean Palfrey said he frequently sees health problems caused by poverty, such as children who are overweight, underweight or diabetic due to a lack of healthy food, children with lead poisoning from unsafe living conditions, or children hurt by stress in their homes.
Palfrey said an extra $60 a month — the average amount that would be added to a family’s check if the bill passes — could help families buy fresh fruit or vegetables or visit a sick child in the hospital.
“Our job as pediatricians is not just to take care of children but to help families take care of children so they can thrive,” Palfrey said.
Sarah Coughlin, a clinical social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital and president of the Massachusetts Association of Social Workers, runs a youth group for high school students in Charlestown. She spoke of a 16-year-old who did not have money or transportation to take his clothes to a laundromat, so he had to choose between going to school in dirty clothing or skipping school and missing the meals he got there. A 14-year-old said she used marijuana because it was the only way to sleep in a two-bedroom apartment shared by 12 family members.
“Families living in deep poverty often struggle to afford basic needs on a regular basis,” Coughlin said. “TAFDC may be the only cash income they have.”