Dels. Barnes and Valentino-Smith: Md.’s Temporary Cash Assistance Safety Net Needs Reform
By Dels. Darryl Barnes and Geraldine Valentino-Smith
The writers are, respectively, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and vice chair of the House Appropriations Health and Social Services Sub-Committee. Both are Democrats representing Prince George’s County in the House of Delegates.
On the surface, Maryland’s poverty rate is lower than many other states — approximately 9% of Marylanders live below the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), according to the Census. While this lower rate might be seen as a measure we are moving in the right direction, a deeper dive into the data shows there is an alarming trend that has existed in our state for years: Maryland has one of the highest rates of deep poverty in the entire country.
Under the banner of a historic budget surplus, we can challenge this trajectory.
Deep poverty is defined as a household’s income falling at or below 50% of FPL, which in 2021 was $6,440 for an individual and $10,980 for a family of three annually. In Maryland, of individuals who live below the FPL, 49.8% live in deep poverty. That means one in two Marylanders living in poverty are struggling to make ends meet on extraordinarily low incomes.
Women, individuals with a disability, and Black and Brown households are disproportionately living in deep poverty when compared to their counterparts. Not surprisingly, research demonstrates that due to extreme material hardship, people in deep poverty are at higher risk of depression, anxiety, exposure to violence, and a litany of other stressors. Tragically, deep poverty often creates a chronic cycle of generational poverty that is difficult to interrupt.
Regrettably, many of the households surviving in deep poverty are the same Marylanders receiving public benefits, as benefit levels fall far short of bringing individuals up to the FPL. In particular, over 22,000 Maryland families receive Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA), which was created as part of welfare reform in the mid-1990’s. Two-thirds of TCA recipients are children, and the families that receive TCA use the cash benefits to pay their rent, buy clothes, and purchase household products.
While TCA is a critical safety net for those living in the deepest levels of poverty, it’s not a pathway to economic stability for the vast majority of recipients. In order to receive TCA, adults in the household are required to participate in harsh work requirements. Work requirements in public benefit programs are criticized for being racially-driven policies that rely on harmful and false race-based assumptions. In practice, the application of the work requirements disproportionately impacts Black and Latino families who are more likely to lose benefits than white families.
Although the original intent for the work requirement might have been for recipients to obtain employment quickly after receiving benefits, numerous studies show the workforce component doesn’t result in lasting, stable employment with livable wages. The TCA work programs aren’t providing families with meaningful opportunities to gain employment skills, and thus most parents who leave TCA for employment are working in unstable jobs in low-paying sectors. In fact, data from the Maryland Life After Welfare report shows that five years after receiving TCA, 80% of families live in poverty and — disturbingly — almost 68% of former recipients are living in deep poverty.
If Maryland is going to reduce the number of households living in deep poverty, a critical area to focus policy and budgetary efforts on is improving the quality of the TCA workforce development programs. Too often, families who receive TCA are forced into temporary, unpaid work experience activities with little to no opportunity for employment. Of all of the types of work activities recipients are referred to, TCA recipients in these unpaid work experience placements have the most difficulty securing employment after TCA, and overall make the lowest earnings post-TCA. Maryland — compared to other states — places TCA recipients into unpaid work experience placements at much higher rates.
Now is the time to reimagine our state’s workforce development programs. Families living in deep poverty face entrenched stigma, systemic oppression, and personal barriers that cannot be ameliorated within the current structures of our safety-net programs. Instead of centering work participation metrics as a sign of success, we need to center the goals and needs of the family. We must value caregiving responsibilities and support families in deciding when they are able to work and allow families choice over their work placement.
Instead of offering the unpaid labor of TCA recipients to the lowest contract bidder, we need to be partnering with innovative educational and skill-building programs that provide meaningful opportunities to secure sustainable employment in high-wage, growing industries. Ensuring workforce development programs work is a bipartisan ideal: we want to affirm that the contracts we make with job placement sites produce tangible employment opportunities for recipients. Otherwise, ineffective workforce programs aren’t a good investment.
This session we can work to ensure that Maryland offers more responsive, supportive workforce programs that collectively build a brighter future for Maryland workers, employers, and families.