Massachusetts one of seven states to earn ‘F’ rating in welfare reform

Massachusetts has been deemed one of the states with the worst overall reform policies, according to national report released March 19.

The Commonwealth was one of only seven states in the nation to be given an “F” overall grade and was ranked 49 out of the 50 states for its welfare reform, the Heartland Institute  determined in its 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card.

“Massachusetts’s current set of welfare and anti-poverty programs disincentivizes work, trapping welfare recipients in long-term poverty,” wrote Logan Pike, the Heartland Institute’s state government relations manager and one of the report’s producers, in an email. “Legislators should reform Massachusetts’s welfare system by adopting policies that improve opportunities for upward mobility and self-sufficiency.”

The conclusions were drawn by examining five aspects of each state’s welfare reform policy: service integration, or the way in which services are delivered to the public; work requirements; limits on eligibility; cash diversion programs, or the policies that allocate cash to applicants for short term needs; and sanctions to secure compliance, the document states, he said.

The report was produced by Pike, Diane Bast, Matthew Glans and Gary MacDougal, all from the Heartland Institute, who, over a two-year period, compiled and analyzed data from each state’s department of social services, U.S. Census  reports, state budget information and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services , Pike said.

“Successful welfare reform can save lives and produce positive effects on multiple generations,” the report stated. “It can save taxpayers billions of dollars and help address such serious social maladies as crime, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy. And it can demonstrate that government programs can be successfully devolved from the national government to states.”

Massachusetts received an “F” grade for four of the five individual policies, excluding service integration, for which the Commonwealth received an “A.” Overall, the Commonwealth’s welfare reform conditions have deteriorated over time, according to the report.

“Massachusetts fell 10 places from 2008 to 2015. Its grade for work requirements fell and the state has done little to change policies while other states have improved theirs,” Pike said. “Massachusetts should adopt work requirements, empower caseworkers with a cash diversion option, impose time lifetime limits on eligibility for aid and do more to enforce eligibility rules.”

Other poor-performing states include Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington, according to the report.

“Many states that earned an A or a B overall have adopted policies that move more people from dependency to self-sufficiency and incentivize work,” Pike said. “These states have immediate work requirements, a cash diversion program, strict sanctions in place, strong integration with other social services and have limited lifetime aid eligibility.”

Pike said states’ welfare aid should include policies to help individuals become more independent. The most successful states, although each state is different, implement policies and integrate services that aid recipients in permanently transitioning into the workforce, Pike said.

“Lawmakers should consider strengthening welfare work requirements, tightening lifetime limit eligibility requirements, providing a short-term cash diversion program, implementing strict sanctions and integrating other social services,” she said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance assists individuals and families in need by working to meet their basic needs, increase their income and ultimately improve their quality of life, wrote DTA spokesman Thomas Mills  in an email statement. In 2014, the legislature executed a welfare reform law  to foster economic independence among low-income individuals.

“[The 2014 welfare reform law] focuses on workforce training for DTA’s clients, among other issues. Since the law was signed, the Department has been meeting with stakeholders as we begin to implement the changes the law makes,” Mills said. “The Department plans to fully implement the law over the course of 2015. The Governor’s FY16 [2016 fiscal year] budget proposal supports the Department’s efforts to implement the law.”

On March 4, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker  and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito  proposed  a fiscal year 2016 budget, which increased local aid by 3 percent, according to the budget overview.

Later, on March 12, Baker signed an executive order to target chronic unemployment by establishing a task force dedicated to “economic opportunity for populations facing chronically high rates of unemployment.” The task force, a March 12 press release stated, is responsible for creating a strategic plan to combat the issue.

Ed Walz, communications vice president at First Focus , a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on child welfare, said there are other areas of welfare reform that should also be of concern to state legislators nationwide, especially child welfare.

“The policies that were adopted in the mid-‘90s emphasize incentives for parents, the work incentives and lifetime caps, without ever really considering the potential harm to children,” he said. “I don’t think there is as much of a thoughtful conversation about ensuring that we can meet the needs of children and families … It’s an issue of concern for folks, but I don’t think that leaders are generating a thoughtful conversation about how to get there.”

Several residents said Massachusetts should be doing better in welfare reform and those who are more privileged need to rethink those policies.

Joe Corrigan, 39, of the South End, said those not affected by welfare policies tend to not think about them.

“We live in a very privileged society, so our exposure to programs like that is limited, and frankly, people who are in that privileged position don’t take a lot of time to stop and take stock in how those programs are actually being affected and how those dollars are hitting the ground, so I suspect that there’s always need for improvement,” he said.

Natalie Wittenburg, 24, of Allston, said she was surprised by Massachusetts’ low grade.

“I would think that Massachusetts would do pretty well, but overall, we could definitely do better with the homeless and providing homes,” she said.

Cailtin Hemdal, 20, of Kenmore, said it is extraordinarily difficult to make a life in Boston while being paid minimum wage.

“I work a minimum wage job, and I know others that work minimum wage jobs, and I know it’s really hard for them to make rent, especially living in the city,” she said. “It’s expensive to get places, it’s expensive to pay rent, so I think reexamining that could definitely be beneficial.”

This article was originally published in The Daily Free Press on March 26, 2015.

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Panel discusses Selma 50th anniversary, Ferguson

A panel of theologians convened Tuesday in Boston University’s School of Theology to reflect on the history of the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama on its 50th anniversary in conjunction with the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement, as part of the Lowell Lecture: Selma at 50, Ferguson Today.

Approximately 70 BU students and Boston residents congregated for the lecture that featured STH alumnus Don Messer, Rev. William Bobby McClain and Rev. Pamela Lightsey, associate dean of community life at STH.

“[I’d like to welcome you to] a celebration and a mourning,” said STH dean Mary Elizabeth Moore. “Celebration for what courageous, justice-minded people did as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, mourning for what is yet to be done. Celebration for what courageous, justice-minded people have done in Ferguson, in New York and … throughout the U.S. and throughout the world, mourning for what is yet to be done.”

McClain, who was raised in Alabama, said he noticed at a young age at school that black people were limited in what they were allowed to do compared to white people.

“My teachers stressed the importance of the founding of America as a democracy and a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” he said. “Yet, none of our wonderful, educated, talented teachers … could register to vote. [They] couldn’t exercise that responsible citizenship and to marvel for us in the community that remarkable freedom they taught us about in the classroom.”

Messer said about 50 years ago, he and McClain traveled with 42 seminarians and students from STH to Selma for a weeklong trip. The seminarians took two buses and two cars, and students paid $40 for the bus fare and the cost equivalency of one month’s rent for housing.

He recalled a phone call with his typically supportive parents during his trip to Selma and how they expressed disapproval of his “demonstrating with that agitator Martin Luther King.”

“The ethos of racial superiority lurked in unexpected places and people,” he said. “Naively and idealistically, I had joined in the struggle for equality for all Americans, not realizing the depth that racism had impregnated white society, even my own family.”

The group was ultimately unable to participate in Selma’s Great March because the historic event was unexpectedly postponed, but Messer said he and the others still marched on two of the three days in nonviolent protest.

Lightsey recalled her own experience in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014.

“Some have asked how the killing of one black man in Ferguson ignited such a tumultuous turn of events,” she said. “Frankly, I feel that question is inaccurate. Black citizens in Ferguson and many other cities have been bearing an internal rage kindled by poverty and discrimination for quite some time.”

Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, causing violent protests in the immediate aftermath of his death and after the St. Louis County grand jury made the decision in November 2014 to not to indict Wilson for his actions.

Lightsey visited Ferguson in the first 21 days after Brown was killed, and again in November, on the day the grand jury decision was announced, she said. During her address, Lightsey showed footage she had taken during her visits. After seeing people being sprayed with pepper spray and tear gas, she said she thought, “not much has changed” since Selma.

“The connection can and should be made, from Dred Scott, to Selma, to Ferguson,” she said. “Black people in the United States have brought their demands before the legislative processes of our country. We must continue to push for justice through public policy, and I believe it is the work of activists then and now to see it to fruition.”

Several attendees said they were glad they were given the opportunity to have a conversation surrounding the civil rights movement, and they hope to make it a more prominent conversation among their peers.

Haley Jones, a graduate student in STH, said she agreed with the panelists’ belief that the church must take part in the civil rights conversation.

“We have to have those spaces in which we can have those really difficult conversations, and I don’t think we do that well yet,” she said. “There are so many ways that we can begin to do that, and we learn a lot of those here at the School of Theology.”

Ashley Johnson, 29, of Dorchester, said the panel discussion left the audience with the responsibility to step up and start the civil rights conversation among their own peers.

“I am an elementary school teacher, so this definitely has me thinking about what I do to teach our history,” she said. “I feel that very frequently we too, as teachers, are handed a curriculum of what we should teach and what we should read. There definitely needs to be a revolution of sorts in our schools and what is being taught in social studies classes and history classes, as well.”

Katie Omberg, a second-year graduate student in STH, said the people of the technological generation must figure out how they are going to be activists and speak out in favor of civil rights.

“Because this is the first generation to do this [activism] work with the Internet, we are still finding what our footing is,” she said. “There is a lot of talk about civil rights and about racism in the classroom, but there is not a lot of talk about the action items and what we are actually going to do about that.”

This article was originally published in The Daily Free Press on March 4, 2015.