Las Vegas Sun, July 18, 2008: Nevada۪s poor will have to tighten belts more if food stamp, welfare cuts OK۪d

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By Timothy Pratt

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 (2 a.m.)

Just when a souring economy is making life tougher for a growing number of poor Nevadans, the state is preparing to cut back on the services designed to help them.

The proposed changes would yank some people out of programs faster, punish others for longer periods when they don۪t keep promises and make children and other family members pay when heads of household don۪t follow the rules.

Cuts in the food stamp and welfare programs are needed, officials say, because of shrinking federal reserves and state funds. Increased demand for those services, they add, is making the situation worse.

New rules for the public assistance programs will go into effect this fall, and the public۪s last chance to comment on the proposals will be at Aug. 19 hearings in Las Vegas and Carson City. On that date, Nancy Ford, administrator of the Welfare and Supportive Services Division, is expected to decide which ones the state will adopt; if she follows the recommendations of her staff, she will approve all of them.

Ford already agrees the proposals “all meet the goals of reducing spending and ensuring that households comply” with the programs۪ rules.

But some experts say the changes would lead to children going hungry and showing up more often in emergency rooms, and would make adults less likely to hold onto jobs.

Nonetheless, officials say shrinking budgets and rising caseloads make some sort of change necessary. The ideas being considered came from a longer list that was whittled down after two public meetings this year.

“Unfortunately we۪re facing some difficult times,” said Gary Stagliano, the division۪s deputy administrator of program and field operations.

The proposed changes include:

• Increasing the period during which families are kicked off welfare from one to three months when they don۪t follow through on plans to achieve self-sufficiency. Welfare and supportive services staff estimate 300 families a month are taken off welfare rolls for not sticking with their plans; if the sit-out time is increased from one to three months, the program will save about $1 million a year.

• Cutting off food stamps for the whole family instead of just the head of household when he or she doesn۪t meet training and job search requirements. Stagliano said the food stamp change would affect about 500 households statewide, judging from April۪s figures, a small percentage of the approximately 65,000 households in that program.

• Increasing the percentage of people۪s wages the state would count against them in determining eligibility for welfare and Medicaid and doing it sooner after they find jobs. This would make more people ineligible for the benefits. Stagliano said he has concerns about this proposal, because the current system helps wean people off public assistance after getting a job, and he worries this change might cut them off too abruptly.

The way it works now, when people who get welfare checks find jobs, the state disregards a steadily decreasing share of their paychecks over a year۪s time, finally disregarding none of them, which then makes the workers ineligible for the program. The proposal would have the state disregard a flat 50 percent after three months, moving more people off the welfare rolls more quickly.

Anna Marie Johnson, executive director of Nevada Legal Services, said the proposals are “disappointing.” She said shifting the “wage disregards” would make it harder for “people to get back on their feet” and that taking back food stamps from an entire family when the head of household doesn۪t meet requirements would be “destructive to children.”

Julie Murray, chief executive of Three Square, a food bank that supplies dozens of nonprofit organizations serving the poor, said her group also opposes the change in food stamps.

“I don۪t want families to lose resources in these challenging economic times,” Murray said.

Since January, her organization has had to increase its budget to feed the poor to $1 million from $375,000 because of increased demand.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, said it is “troubling to think they would be penalizing the entire household, because children would be affected.” Vollinger said the food stamp change would make Nevada one of only 12 states with such a policy.

She also pointed to research that shows how public assistance sanctions affect the health of children. A 2002 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine concluded that reducing such benefits increases the likelihood of hunger and hospitalization. Stagliano said the state has its reasons: “We don۪t intend to harm children. We intend to reinforce parental responsibility.”

He added that the combined pressure of budget tightening and increased need currently facing the state is greater than anything he۪s seen in his 28 years of work in the system.

“There۪s some harsh realities we face.”

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