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

Executive Summary

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. 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.

In studies conducted by the Southern Institute on Children and Families, 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 on Children and Families 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

Public policy makers often assume that the passage of laws and/or the appropriation of funding will result in benefits reaching the citizens who are eligible to receive them. With programs for low income families, however, insufficient attention and resources have been devoted to the development of effective communication strategies to inform them about available benefits. Studies by the Southern Institute have shown that many families are not aware of government benefits that can help provide health coverage for their children, assist them in paying for child care, and allow them to keep more of what they earn.

This project builds on Southern Institute initiatives undertaken in cooperation with health and human service officials in NORTH CAROLINA and GEORGIA to develop effective information outreach materials. Through the use of 27 focus groups conducted in nine urban and rural counties with welfare and transitional benefits recipients, community organizations and employers, the Southern Institute developed 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 developed in Georgia and North Carolina and also produced videos to be used in conjunction with the dissemination of the information outreach brochures. All states and the District of Columbia have indicated that they will take advantage of the opportunity to produce the brochures for use in their outreach efforts. At present, 10 southern states have completed production and are using the brochures statewide. The project also produced videos based on the brochures. (See Table 6 for state by state information.)

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 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 meetings 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.

On completion of the 18 site visits, the project sponsored the Southern Regional Forum on Improving Access to Benefits for Families With Children to promote dialogue on interagency and interdepartmental issues affecting low income families. The forum brought together state policy staffwho 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. Forum presentations are summarized in the relevant chapters of this report and contacts for further information are provided.

Actions That Can Improve Access to Benefits

This report outlines actions states are taking and actions that can be taken to improve access to benefits for low income families with children. The chapters include discussion of access issues related to the affordability of health coverage and child care in relation to family income, the categorical structure of benefit programs for low income families with children, the complex and often counterproductive eligibility rules, inadequate transportation services and the need for aggressive state and community outreach. Additionally, state strategies to address needs are summarized and state-by-state data is presented where available. The recommended actions are presented below and appear at the end of the relevant chapters.

Child Health Coverage

  1. To increase the number of low income children who have health coverage, states should utilize the opportunities presented by the Medicaid program, CHIP and state/local coverage programs to design a coordinated approach to child health coverage.
  2. To allow states to efficiently provide Medicaid coverage for children and families who are eligible under the state welfare (TANF) program, the Medicaid law can be amended to give states the option to create a Medicaid eligibility category which mirrors TANF eligibility.
  3. To assure that families applying for welfare (TANF) understand that they do not have to be on welfare to obtain Medicaid coverage for their children, states should fully inform and link applicant families to health coverage opportunities, such as Medicaid poverty related children coverage, Section 1931 coverage, state CHIP coverage and other state/local coverage programs.
  4. To avoid denying Medicaid coverage to children in income eligible families who have resources that exceed state asset limits, states should exempt assets when determining eligibility for child health coverage.
  5. In order to reduce the chances that reporting requirements could result in income eligible families losing Medicaid benefits during the first year after leaving welfare, the federal Medicaid law can be amended to give states the option to eliminate reporting requirements in the second six months of Transitional Medicaid.
  6. To avoid requiring families to spend a specified time on welfare in order to obtain health coverage, the federal Medicaid law can be amended to give states the option to eliminate the rule that requires families to receive cash assistance for three out of the previous six months in order to be eligible for Transitional Medicaid.
  7. To assist low income families to access health coverage for their children, states and communities should design and implement aggressive outreach strategies.
  8. To improve access to child health coverage, states and communities should identify and implement actions needed to make the application process less burdensome for families.
  9. In order to avoid erroneous or premature termination of Medicaid benefits for a child, states should develop and implement information systems which assure that children are automatically transferred from one eligibility category to another without disruption to their Medicaid benefits.
  10. To assure that the eligibility system is regularly examined with the goal of reducing policy and procedural barriers, states and communities should establish a periodic review process of eligibility outcome data.

Child Care Assistance

  1. To assist more low income families with the high cost of child care and to discourage welfare as an entry point for child care assistance, states should identify and implement actions to achieve an income based system of child care subsidies for low income working families with no requirement that a family be on welfare for any period of time in order to obtain assistance in paying for child care.
  2. To avoid denying child care assistance to children in income eligible families who have resources that exceed state asset limits, states should exempt assets when determining eligibility for child care assistance.
  3. To assure that the application and recertification process is not burdensome for low income families seeking child care assistance, states should review eligibility policies and procedures, including recertification periods and verification requirements.
  4. In order to provide continuity of child care assistance, states should review policies regarding agency initiative in making category changes for low income families whose children remain eligible.
  5. To assure that families know about available child care assistance, states and communities should design and implement outreach strategies to communicate the availability of child care assistance for low income working families.
  6. To foster cooperation with Head Start, states should identify and disseminate information on successful Head Start collaboration strategies and document issues that need to be addressed at the federal level.

Transportation

  1. To develop more efficient and responsive transportation solutions for poor and low income citizens, states should create state level or multi-state work groups composed of the various public and private agencies that purchase or provide transportation services. The objectives would be to:
    • Identify strategies to effectively and efficiently coordinate transportation services designed to assist low income citizens; and
    • To identify strategies to help low income families acquire personal automobiles.
    Including advocacy groups and/or family representatives in the deliberations will provide needed input from user groups. The experience of local initiatives should be examined and information on state or federal demonstration projects should be reviewed. Federal technical assistance should be provided to avoid misinterpretation of federal policies and rules and to identify coordination and collaboration opportunities.
  2. To avoid penalizing low income families who own an automobile, states should eliminate automobile asset testing for families applying for child health coverage, child care assistance and other benefits.

Earned Income Tax Credit

  1. To assure that families learn about the EITC, states should conduct information outreach campaigns, with special efforts targeted to families on welfare, and provide EITC information and forms to eligibility workers.
  2. To assure that children do not lose Medicaid because their family claimed the EITC and did not spend their refund quickly, states should exclude the cash received through the EITC, whether through the advance method or end of year tax refund, from the state definition of assets.
  3. To avoid children losing Medicaid coverage, the federal government can enact the same policy it has for income and thus disallow the counting of EITC cash as an asset in determining Medicaid eligibility.