Las Vegas Sun, April 6, 2008: For the poor, tough times could get tougher

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By Timothy Pratt

Sun, Apr 6, 2008 (2 a.m.)

State officials are considering the longest list of possible cuts in food stamps and welfare benefits in nearly a decade.

The ideas include such controversial proposals as putting a “family cap” on households receiving welfare, basically denying or reducing additional benefits to families that have more children while in the program. Another would disqualify entire families from receiving food stamps if the adult head of household does not look for a job.

The economic slump statewide has hit these programs hard, with double-digit increases in caseloads in the past year.

“When the economy۪s bad, our business is good,” said Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator of program services in the Welfare and Supportive Services Division.

Welfare and food stamp caseloads have increased 25 percent and 15 percent in the past year, respectively, while state and federal money for the programs has stayed the same.

Starting next week, state officials will be seeking input on six proposals for saving money and moving more people out of the programs and toward self-sufficiency.

The workshops, scheduled for April 10 in Reno and April 17 in Las Vegas, are partly in response to a $900 million state budget deficit.

Jeff Brenn, chief of eligibility and payments for the division, called the list “probably the biggest changes we۪ve proposed in quite some time.”

The most hard-hitting ones:

• Making families that don۪t comply with “personal responsibility plans” sit out the welfare program for three months before they can apply again. Now families that don۪t fulfill the contracts by not seeking work, for example are cut from the program, but they can apply again the next month. About 300 of the 4,500 families with these plans or contracts are not in compliance at any one time, a state official said.

• Withholding benefits from children born after welfare benefits begin, the “family cap.” About 130 families receiving welfare grow by at least one child every year, a state official said.

• Evaluating welfare cases every 12 months, instead of every six months. This would free up time for caseworkers.

• Disqualifying entire families from the food stamp program if heads of household don۪t look for jobs. Now only the head of household is penalized, and his or her benefits are reduced, not eliminated. About three of four new food stamp participants don۪t show up at mandatory four-hour workshops on job searches. That۪s a sign of how big this problem is, said Lori Wilson, chief of employment and supportive services for the division.

Another idea was to deny welfare benefits to families with adult members who are not citizens. There were 2,200 families in that category in February, about 10 percent of the total caseload. Now children born in the United States can receive this benefit regardless of their parents۪ citizenship status.

Brenn said that possible cutback will be removed from the agenda, however, because the state attorney general۪s office has determined it would not pass muster in the courts.

The family cap may well be the most controversial of what remains on the agenda because it has been debated for nearly a decade in at least 20 states that have the rule in place. Two states, Illinois and Maryland, have repealed the measure in recent years. At issue is whether the policy achieves its goal, that of influencing a family۪s decision to limit its size according to financial ability. Some studies have suggested that it encourages abortion, while others have shown the opposite. Still others have concluded that it wound up decreasing the health and well-being of children in families receiving welfare.

Stagliano said the public۪s input will be important in deciding whether to enact these or any other changes. “Any time you propose reducing benefits, it۪s controversial,” Stagliano said.

But one way or the other, “we have to solve some issues both in the budget and performance-wise.”

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