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The Southern Regional Initiative to Improve Access to Benefits for Low Income Families With Children

Chapter 1

Introduction

With the passage of welfare reform, the consolidation of child care programs, the attainment of more state options under Medicaid and the enactment of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), states are now in the position to make significant changes in fundamental health and social policies related to children. While producing much controversy, welfare reform brought long overdue attention to the economic issues and incentives intertwined in welfare and health policy. Since its passage, states have made greater investments in benefits to help low wage families with high cost items like health coverage and child care.

As states move forward to design and implement public policies that support low income working families, it is critical that the perspective of families be included in their deliberations. Studies by the Southern Institute on Children and Families (hereinafter referred to as the Southern Institute) often involve personal interviews and focus groups with families where they are asked to share their views and are encouraged to make suggestions on what actions are needed to improve policies and operations. In Southern Institute studies on health and welfare issues, a resounding message from families has been that they need assistance in paying for child health coverage, child care and other needs and they would like such assistance to be related to their income. They are frustrated by public programs that provide benefits based on arbitrary time limits and other rules that are not related to their ability to pay.

An economic reality check demonstrates the income versus expenses predicament faced by low wage families. Table 1 displays the annual income for a family of three earning at the minimum wage (80% of the federal poverty level), 100%, 150% and 200% of the federal poverty level.

TABLE 1
VARIOUS LEVELS OF ANNUAL INCOME RELATED TO
THE 1997 FEDERAL POVERTY LEVEL
FOR A FAMILY SIZE OF THREE
80% of Poverty
(Full Time Minimum Wage)

100% of Poverty

150% of Poverty

200% of Poverty
$10, 712
$13,330
$19,995
$26,660
Source: Southern Institute on Children and Families, 1997.

Given these income levels, it is not difficult to understand how families earning these amounts are in a constant economic struggle to pay for housing, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, health care, child care and other basic needs. And it’s not difficult to understand why they become discouraged when they encounter public policies and programs that fail to recognize simple economic realities.
In addition to implementing new strategies to assist low income families, states must move aggressively to utilize existing opportunities to bolster families who work in low wage jobs. The extent to which states take advantage of and promote available programs varies widely across the southern region.

Southern Regional Initiative to Improve Access to Benefits for Low Income Families With Children

In February 1997, the Southern Institute received support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to launch a regional outreach initiative to help southern states identify ways to improve access to benefits for low income working families with children. Specific objectives of the project are:

Development of Information Outreach Materials

The project builds on Southern Institute initiatives undertaken in cooperation with health and human service officials in GEORGIA and NORTH CAROLINA. Through the use of 27 focus groups in nine urban and rural counties with welfare and transitional benefits recipients, community organizations and employers, the Southern Institute developed and tested eye-catching, easy to understand information outreach brochures to convey positive messages about the following benefits for low income working families:

The project provides technical assistance to states to replicate the information outreach brochures initially developed in Georgia and North Carolina.

The project also produced videos to be used in conjunction with the dissemination of the information outreach brochures. Two videos were produced to inform families about available benefits and one video provides information for employers. The videos for viewing by families and community organizations were also produced in Spanish.

State Site Visits

From March through September 1997, the project sponsored site visits to the following 17 southern states and the District of Columbia:

Alabama Louisiana South Carolina
Arkansas Maryland Tennessee
Delaware Mississippi Texas
Florida Missouri Virginia
Georgia North Carolina West Virginia
Kentucky Oklahoma  

The Foundation for Child Development provided support to assist with two of the state site visits.

The site visits were conducted in cooperation with governors’ offices and state health and human service officials. A total of 445 persons participated in the site visit meetings. The site visit discussions identified policies and procedures that present access barriers for low income families and also identified strategies states are using to improve access to benefits, primarily child health coverage and child care subsidies. The discussions were centered on four areas:

Appendix A provides information on state contacts who were responsible for handling arrangements for the site visits.

Southern Regional Forum

On completion of the 18 site visits, the project sponsored the Southern Regional Forum on Improving Access to Benefits for Families With Children. The forum brought together state policy staff who work with health coverage, child care, eligibility and transportation issues. Persons attending the regional
forum were designated by each of the 17 governors, as well as designees from the District of Columbia. Other guests attending the forum included representatives of the National Governors’ Association, Administration on Children and Families, Health Care Financing Administration, advocacy groups, national policy researchers and foundation representatives

The regional forum was designed to share information gained on the state site visits and to promote dialogue on interagency and interdepartmental issues affecting low income families. The opportunity to learn about issues and strategies used in other states and in other program areas was well received by the attendees. A total of 120 individuals were in attendance. Five panels of state, federal and private sector representatives provided information on the following topics:

The forum presentations are summarized in the relevant chapters of this report and contacts for further information are provided. See Appendix B for the forum program.

Summary of Report

This report outlines actions states are taking and actions that can be taken to better support low income working families with children. Most of the information contained in the report was gathered on state site visits conducted during the project. Some additional surveying was required to collect updated information on issues discussed in the report. A brief review of the chapters is presented below.