NC Counties Told to Hold Work First Applications

October 15, 2013 | The Charlotte Observer |  Link to article

RALEIGH, N.C. North Carolina's government suspended a welfare program for the unemployed and underemployed Monday because there was no guarantee the federal government would reimburse the state for benefits until the partial shutdown in Washington ends.

The state Department of Health and Human Services directed county social service offices to no longer process or approve Work First applications they receive. The department also suspended the renewal of current Work First participants.

October cash payments have already been transmitted to people eligible for Work First, department spokeswoman Julie Henry said, so people would only miss benefits if the shutdown extends into November. More than 20,700 people received Work First services in September, including $4.8 million in payments, Henry said.

North Carolina may be the only state in the country that has currently stopped processing applications, according to an expert that monitors welfare programs nationwide.

"It just means people will have to wait longer for benefits," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst for CLASP, a Washington-based group advocating for policies to help the poor. She said her group wasn't aware of any other state deciding to stop processing applications.

Block-grant funds to the states to operate their welfare programs weren't authorized after Sept. 30, and Congress failed to agree on legislation to extend government spending into the new federal fiscal year, prompting the shutdown.

North Carolina and other states received letters saying they could choose to spend state funds in the meantime and hope Congress would reimburse when the block funding through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was restored. But the letter's language was too tentative for DHHS officials in Raleigh to justify spending state funds, according to Henry.

"It was just not a concrete enough assurance," Henry said. The state decided to use their leftover TANF funds to continue child welfare and protective service programs, she said. If the shutdown ends later in the month, applications will be processed toward getting applicants their benefits on time, she said.

Lower-Basch said government officials in a few other states have said they aren't going to pay benefits in November, but are continuing to process the applications. Arizona stopped making TANF cash assistance checks to low-income families in early October after federal funds dried up, but resumed the check-writing when it located other funds to use through the end of the month.

Lower-Basch said she couldn't imagine Congress refusing to pass a TANF reauthorization bill without reimbursing states that kept paying benefits to welfare recipients during the shutdown. "We all hope this gets resolved real soon," she said.

Families who qualify for Work First receive one-time cash benefits of up to three months. Parents who register with an employment assistance program and sign an agreement can keep receiving benefits for up to 24 months if they keep working, get training or perform community service.

Last week, DHHS said it was halting its supplemental food voucher program for poor women and their young children due to the shutdown. But the agency announced two days later the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program would resume issuing benefits the next day because officials had located money to operate it through October. At the time, North Carolina was the only state to halt its WIC program, which helps 264,000 women and children monthly.

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