PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday June 8th, 2016, 2:21pm

National Anti-Poverty Group 'Alarmed' By Caseload Decline In Illinois' Welfare Program

Officials with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law are expressing concern over the declining caseload in Illinois' welfare program. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the issue.

A leading anti-poverty organization is "alarmed" by a recent drop in Illinois' Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or what most people know as welfare.

Dan Lesser with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law said he is "very concerned" by the program's caseload decline and claims the TANF program in Illinois is currently "being managed differently than it was under the prior administration."

"The caseload has been plummeting ever since Governor Rauner took office," he told Progress Illinois.

Rauner became governor in January 2015. 

From December 2014 through April 2016, the month for which the most current data is available, the average monthly TANF caseload dropped 29 percent, decreasing from 49,028 to 34,658, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS). 

Liz Schott, a senior fellow in the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, weighed in on the Illinois TANF caseload decline.

"The economy is improving, and we are seeing some [TANF caseload] decline around the country, but typically when you see a decline like that, there's something going on," like a policy or culture change, she said.

The average monthly TANF caseload in Illinois increased between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, before beginning to decline in fiscal year 2014, according to readily available data on DHS' website. 

Specifically, the monthly Illinois TANF caseload was, on average, 27,384 in fiscal year 2009; 31,256 in fiscal year 2010; 40,033 in fiscal year 2011; 48,768 in fiscal year 2012; 50,439 in fiscal year 2013; 49,734 in fiscal year 2014 and 47,215 in fiscal year 2015.  

TANF is a block grant program, meaning states get a pot of money from the federal government and contribute their own funding to run it. The program began in 1996 during the Clinton administration and replaced old welfare systems with the intention to turn them into a temporary assistance program that helps recipients enter the workforce.

Illinois' TANF program provides benefits for up to five years to recipients who participate in work-related activities for at least 20 to 35 hours a week, depending on the household.

Lesser described the program as an "income support of last resort" for families in need.

"It's a very low amount," he said of the TANF cash benefit, noting that for a family of three in Chicago, the monthly payment is $432, "which puts you at just about 25 percent of the poverty level."

"But it's something," Lesser stressed of the cash assistance. "It keeps people from becoming homeless" and living in abject poverty.

The long-running state budget stalemate is not necessarily driving the recent TANF caseload decline, according to Lesser. That's because a consent decree requires that TANF be paid regardless of the lack of a state budget.

When asked why he thinks the Illinois TANF caseload is on the decline, Lesser said he's heard anecdotal accounts, alleging that there has been "defective notices coming from the department," inaccessible offices, "active discouragement of people from applying for TANF, excessive mandatory meetings, making people come to the office repeatedly, failure to screen people for disabilities or for work" and "assigning them to inappropriate activities."

Lesser alleged that TANF participants could also be facing "hair-trigger sanctions," through which someone who fails to show up for a meeting, for example, has their case canceled, rather than receiving a second notice.

"There's just a lot of ways they can tighten the screws" on the TANF program, Lesser claimed, "and that's what we're hearing is going on."

DHS pushed back on the allegations, noting that no policy changes related to TANF eligibility and application procedures have been implemented under Rauner's governorship. 

DHS cited several factors behind the TANF caseload drop. Among them is a 22 percent decrease in Illinois TANF applications between December 2014 and April 2016. Over that time, monthly TANF applications declined from 9,755 to 7,641, according to DHS.

Additionally, monthly case openings -- in which someone applies, qualifies, provides required documentation and is approved -- have decreased 45 percent between December 2014 and April 2016, dropping from 2,934 to 1,616. 

DHS further noted that the monthly TANF cancelation rate ticked up from 5.92 percent to 7.97 percent of the total caseload between December 2014 and April 2016. 

During that time period, monthly rates of canceled cases due to earnings and non-compliance among adult TANF recipients who are required to participate in work-related activities have both more than doubled, DHS reported.

The department also pointed out that the number of annual TANF appeals by individuals who were denied access to the program decreased in Cook County by 13 percent between 2014 and 2015 and 34 percent between 2012 and 2015. 

In all, there were 3,897 TANF appeals in Cook County between 2012 and 2016 to date, according to DHS. Of those Cook County-based filings, there were 124 decisions issued on TANF appeals, 16 of which were reversals, the department said. 

DHS asserted that there are no "hair-trigger sanctions" being imposed upon TANF recipients. Prior to a sanction, there is a reconciliation process to determine whether a non-compliant TANF recipient had a good reason for failing to cooperate with program requirements. The case is sanctioned if the recipient fails to pass the reconciliation process. 

The department's rules regarding TANF-related sanctions are posted on its website:

  • The first time you are sanctioned, your cash benefits will be cut in half. If you cooperate, they will be restored right away. If you don't cooperate within three months after the benefits go down, they will stop completely until you cooperate.
  • If you are sanctioned a second time, the same thing will happen, except when you cooperate within three months, your benefits won't be restored until the fourth month.
  • If you are sanctioned three or more times, your cash benefits will stop completely for at least three months. They will be restored for the fourth month if you cooperate before then.

Melissa Young, director of the Heartland Alliance's National Initiatives on Poverty and Economic Opportunity, weighed in on national TANF caseload trends. TANF, she said, has been serving "fewer and fewer families living in poverty" over the years.

Between 1996 through 2014, the monthly TANF caseload dropped nationwide by nearly two-thirds, from 4.7 million to 1.7 million families, Young said.

"This is even as ... extreme poverty has increased nationally over this time period," she said. "Among families, extreme poverty has increased from 5.4 to 6.6 percent between 1996 and 2014."

Young said state policy changes are largely behind the caseload declines seen across the country.

"A lot of these state policy changes have created barriers to accessing cash benefits," she explained. "That's what we've seen more broadly happening across the country."

Statewide, 1.8 million Illinoisans live in poverty, representing about 14.4 percent of the population, according to a report released earlier this year by the Heartland Alliance's Social IMPACT Research Center.

There were 17 families in Illinois receiving TANF benefits for every 100 families with children living in poverty as of 2014, according to the CBPP's latest state-by-state TANF analysis.

"The success of the program is moving people out of poverty. It's not reducing the caseload. It's not having an 'X' number of people in work activities," Lesser said. "A good program would actually equip people to move out of poverty."

As for the Illinoisans who are no longer receiving TANF benefits, DHS spokeswoman Marianne Manko said in an email that "many are gainfully employed but may continue to receive SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and medical assistance."

"The goal is to help clients succeed and eventually gain full financial independence," she said.

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