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3/19/2024 Bill would boost RI Works, link benefits to federal poverty level
STATE HOUSE – Before 2021, Rhode Island went 30 years without increasing the benefits provided through RI Works, the cash assistance and work-readiness program for low-income children and their families.

Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Melissa A. Murray, who have been pushing to improve the program for years, have introduced legislation (2024-H 7686, 2024-S 2337) to boost benefits and link them to the federal poverty limit so their value keeps pace with the changing economy. The legislation, which was the subject of a State House event today backed by supporters in the Raising RI Coalition, also aims to prevent needy children from losing their benefits if their parent is sanctioned, and to restore eligibility to lawful permanent residents without a years-long waiting period.

“No child deserves to be raised in deep poverty. RI Works is supposed to be a lifeline for children and families, but it can’t be when its rates are left to stagnate and it cuts off children for their parents’ missteps. We have fortunately made some progress the last few years strengthening the program, but decades of nickel-and-diming it have diminished it to a point where it’s not actually capable of keeping kids from being raised in poverty. Rates and eligibility should be linked to economic reality, so RI Works can actually help children escape the cycle of poverty that can trap them their whole lives,” said Senator Murray (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield).

“Impoverished kids should never be a political football, but that is exactly what has happened to them for decades. Since the 1990s, the focus of most changes made to RI Works has been to prevent the ‘wrong people’ from using it and to keep people from staying on it,” said Representative Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston). “Our focus needs to shift to fixing the ways we are preventing the program from actually achieving its purpose of lifting children out of poverty. All children need and deserve a decent chance at a healthy, successful life, and RI Works needs genuine, sustained support to actually provide that to those born to families living in deep poverty.”

The legislation would help the families of the 5,000 Rhode Island children who receive RI Works benefits this year, and ensure cash benefits keep pace with the times by setting them at 50% of the federal poverty level (FPL). Currently, cash benefits equal only about 35% of the FPL– just $721 a month for a family of three. That family would receive $1,036 monthly if the benefit were 50% of the FPL right now.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the federal block grant, can be used to fund the proposed increase of the monthly benefit amount, the cost-of-living adjustment and repealing of full family sanctions.

The bill would also repeal a law that punishes the whole family if a parent is sanctioned under the program. Currently, a family’s case is closed and the entire family, including children, lose the RI Works benefit if a parent is sanctioned three times during their lifetime.

According to the Raising RI Coalition, sanctions harm children, fall disproportionately on parents who have significant barriers including physical and mental health challenges, limited education and domestic violence, and do not improve program compliance. Reopening cases is an administrative burden for the Rhode Island Department of Human Services.

The bill would also eliminate the five-year waiting period for immigrants with lawful permanent resident status. Until 2007, lawful permanent residents were not subject to this waiting period.

“Rhode Island must address the systemic issues of poverty to become a more prosperous state. There is no other option. Children in poverty — especially those who experience poverty as young children and for extended periods — are more likely to have physical and behavioral health challenges, experience hunger, have difficulty in school, become teen parents, and earn less or be unemployed as adults,” said Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Kids Count. “The RI Works Program is intended to serve as a safety net and workforce development program for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children and families, but there are too many holes in this net. House Bill 7686 and Senate Bill 2337 championed by Rep. Handy and Sen. Murray can keep Rhode Island moving toward the goal of ending child poverty in Rhode Island.”

In December 2022, 70% of RI Works beneficiaries were children, and 39% of the children enrolled were under the age of six.

According to the 2023 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, total expenditures for cash assistance in Rhode Island have declined steadily since the program began in 1996, and are now are less than 15% of what they were in 1996. In 1996, the state spent a total of $126.5 million in state and federal funds. In 2022, the state spent just $18.6 million, all of which was federal funding. No state funding has gone to cash assistance since 2010. In 1996, the program assisted 18,428 Rhode Island families. In December 2022, only 3,101 families received cash assistance, an 83% reduction.

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