NC should end suspension of a program for the needy

October 15, 2013 

More innocent bystanders have been felled as a result of the federal government shutdown and the corresponding loss of money for worthwhile programs. This time, the victims are children, whose families receive financial help through a successful, federally-funded program called TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

As of Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services has suspended the program, citing the impending expiration of federal funding thanks to the increasingly hurtful government shutdown. DHHS has notified county social services directors to not process any more applications for new help and recertifications to retain help for November.

There will be no November payments if the shutdown continues, the department says.

The shutoff of money is not, it’s true, the fault of DHHS. But federal officials have urged states to cover the payments (in North Carolina, program ran $4.7 million for September) until the shutdown is resolved, indicating that states would likely be reimbursed at that time. But the state DHHS said no, indicating a distrust of whether the money spent by the state would be paid back.

Considering that the health and welfare of over 13,000 children in the program (there are 21,000 people in it counting those kids and 7,000 parents with dependent children) might be in jeopardy, and that this is a program that actually encourages people to go to work, that seems a foolish decision indeed. It’s particularly misguided if part of the reasoning for it is an inherent distrust of the federal government, something right out of the tea party and Libertarian playbook.

In North Carolina, former Gov. Jim Hunt signed what was then called the Work First program into law in the mid-1990s. President Clinton, after a heated battle over welfare with Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies, agreed to what is now TANF shortly afterwards. The program may be paid for by the feds, but the states have a lot of say-so in how it is run and who is eligible to receive it.

And make no mistake, it’s not easy to qualify and people must demonstrate that they are looking for work. They’re also limited in the amount of time they can collect help from TANF.

The program has been credited by its advocates with dramatically cutting welfare rolls and accomplishing its goal of helping people, in fact in encouraging them to work and for that matter, demanding that they work.

Considering the dislike on the part of Republican lawmakers for any government “handouts” or anything that falls under the heading of “giving” the poor anything, one would think GOP leaders would be all for a program that demands of recipients a goal of work.

The state could cover roughly $5 million to fund the program immediately, pending an end to the shutdown, and that would be the humane and sensible thing to do in a state with a roughly $20 billion annual budget.

Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have a chance here to stick it to critics who claim they lack compassion and care only about taking care of the wealthy and the businesses they own. In providing for the continuation of TANF, they could show that they do care and that they do not intend to let North Carolinians fall by the wayside because of a federal shutdown beyond their control.

Their critics, and many citizens, have grown cynical of late. Two 24-year-old aides are making over $85,000 a year each serving in non-critical roles at DHHS. The department’s secretary has two people, one an employee of her husband’s business and the other former state Treasurer Les Merritt, on the consulting payroll well into six figures.

A need is calling. With the governor answer?

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