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3/30/2021 Coalition backs legislation to raise RI Works assistance
STATE HOUSE – A coalition of community, faith and antipoverty advocates are backing bills submitted by Sen. Melissa A. Murray and Rep. Arthur Handy to improve current and longer-term economic security for families in the Rhode Island Works Program, the state’s cash assistance and work-readiness program for low-income children and their families.

The monthly benefit provided to families has not been increased in 30 years, while all other New England states have adjusted their benefit to help families’ purchasing power keep up with inflation. The benefit, averaging $6 per person per day, is the lowest in New England. In February, 2,400 families were receiving RI Works benefits, including 5,578 people.

The legislation (2021-S 0226, 2021-H 5683) would increase the benefit from 30% to 50% of the federal poverty level to lift 4,200 children, 27% of whom are 3 or younger, out of deep poverty.

The bills would also ensure that the $100 yearly clothing allowance is paid to infants and toddlers, who are excluded from eligibility under current law. To improve parents’ readiness for employment and retention, the bills would allow parents to attend CCRI for two years and exempt income from employment for six months when a parent starts a job.

The Raising Rhode Island Coalition, which includes 40 community, social service, religious, and advocacy organizations that serve low-income families and well as individuals concerned about justice for these families, held a virtual event today to call attention to the need for the legislation.

“Unbelievably, the benefit amount for families in the RI Works program has not increased in 30 years. Currently, at a mere 30% of the federal poverty level, it’s both shameful and embarrassing that Rhode Island has gone so long without increasing the benefit amount. A majority of these families are women heads of households with young children. We know that living in poverty causes toxic stress that affects the growth and development of children in virtually every way. Now is the time to lift these families —these children —out of deep poverty and give them the opportunity not just survive, but to thrive. This isn’t about money — there are enough federal funds to pay for the grant increase and other changes in the bill. This is about making these families a priority when we pass the budget,” said Senator Murray (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket).

Representative Handy agreed.

“We are essentially abandoning vulnerable children if we continue to allow Rhode Island Works to languish. The rate may have lifted people out of poverty in 1991, but leaving it the same for 30 years obviously means it can’t do nearly as much today. Its limits have no connection to reality — for example, all children, not just those in school, need clothing,” said Representative Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston). “No child in our state should be raised in deep poverty. There are families relying on Rhode Island Works in my district and every city and town in Rhode Island except Block Island. We have to bring this program into the 21st century so it actually serves as a viable safety net for our poorest young families throughout the state in times of crisis.”

Speakers at the briefing included Senator Murray, Representative Handy, Dr. Pat Flanagan, pediatrician; Tonya Harris, director of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence; David Veliz, director and lead organizer for the Interfaith Coalition to End Poverty; Linda Katz, policy director for the Economic Progress Institute; and Jillian Kane and Desire Barrett, parents who are enrolled in Rhode Island Works.

“The RI Works program provided a lifeline for me after working many years and becoming unemployed. Having the benefit has helped me be able to provide for my family as I always have when I was employed but living off $500 a month isn’t easy. Increasing the benefit is very important to me so I can better support my son. I’m in a program through ResCare and plan to be back in the workforce soon. The 6-month income exclusion would really help. It would give me a chance to build some savings and pay off debt. The extra boost from the higher benefit and the income exclusion would help families move forward with their heads held high and a sense of security, maybe something that people haven’t experienced in a longtime. There needs to be a change for everyone. What happened to the American Dream?” said Kane, a resident of Coventry.

Dr. Flanagan, a pediatrician and member of the Executive Committee of the RI Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explained, “As a pediatrician for over 30 years in Rhode Island, I know firsthand what the research also tells us — that growing up in deep poverty not only has devastating impacts on children but impairs their health as adults, as well. Children experience problems with language development, chronic illnesses such as asthma, exposure to environmental dangers include lead poisoning. Poverty also makes parenting hard with the added stress of worrying about providing a safe and warm home and enough food for their children. Personally, and on behalf of the National and RI Chapter of the AAP, we strongly support the increased benefit, the clothing allowance, and the work-support changes proposed in these bills.”

Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Tonya Harris said, “Financial insecurity is a prominent reason that victims are unable to leave an abusive relationship. No victim should have to choose between economic security and their own safety. The RI Works program is a lifeline for survivors and the benefit increase and clothing allowance change for RI Works recipients is essential to keep survivors and their children safe. We also support the employment –related changes in the bills. The Coalition, partnered with the Department of Human Services and Newport’s Women’s Resource Center, oversees the Family Violence Option Advocacy Program, which assists RI Works recipients who are victims of domestic violence. Our counselors know that many of these parents need additional resources and flexibility to obtain the skills they need to enter the work force and keep a job to provide financial stability for their families. Providing the opportunity for post-secondary education and six months of financial and case management support when a parent starts a job can help survivors succeed.”

Desire Barrett, who currently receives RI Works benefits for herself and her son, added, “These benefits haven’t changed in 30 years. If they had changed, a lot of people wouldn’t be suffering the way they are today.”

David Veliz, director and lead organizer of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, remarked, “The pandemic has illuminated and magnified the economic inequity in Rhode Island and around the country. Our faith communities believe that it is a moral imperative to make the changes proposed in these bills to not only help the children now but to ensure a healthier and stronger future for them — our next generation.”

Linda Katz, Policy Director for the Economic Progress Institute, explained that raising the benefit from 30% to 50% of the poverty level would translate into a benefit increase for a family of 3 from $554 to $915 per month. Extending the clothing allowance to all children would mean that 1,400 infants and toddlers would receive the $100 payment in August.

“It is intolerable that Rhode Island has failed to provide RI Works families with income adequate to support their children,” said Katz. “Besides the stagnant benefit, there are so many provisions in the RI Works law that stand in the way of parents making a successful transition to work and a more secure future. We are chipping away at those barriers through these bills. This year, we will work with our coalition partners to ensure these families are front and center as the budget is developed and that the policy changes proposed in these bills are enacted into state law.”

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For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923