BOSTON — Welfare advocates in Massachusetts are calling on lawmakers to restore funding for an annual clothing allowance for low-income families that was cut in a draft of the state budget.
A House version of a proposed $40.5 billion spending package for the budget year that starts July 1 lowers the allowance by $50 per child, to $200 a year.
Welfare advocates say that will hurt the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“For low-income families, money is often so tight it might be the only cash they have to buy new clothes for their children for the year,” said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “They can’t buy clothes until they get that money.”
The allowance, which is provided to welfare recipients ages 19 and under, is generally made available before school starts in September. The state spent $11.2 million on the benefit in the current fiscal year, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance.
Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said cutting the allowance is “surprising” given that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey pledged not to cut welfare benefits next fiscal year.
“The Ways and Means proposal is committed to protecting and providing for our Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents," said Dempsey, D-Haverhill, in a letter to House members last month unveiling the 2018 budget. “This budget guarantees that there will be no change in benefits for any transitional assistance recipient.”
In the previous budget cycle, the House reduced the allowance to $200, but the Senate restored it.
Gov. Charlie Baker set the allowance at $250 in this year’s budget proposal.
Advocates say they are looking to the Senate, which rolls out its budget this month, to restore the $250 allowance before it sends the spending plan to Baker.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said she supports bumping the allowance back up to $250 if the Senate can find the money.
"I certainly think we can find other areas of the budget to be fiscally prudent," she said. "It's not a lot of money to buy a year's worth of clothing, especially in our region."
State funding for the Department of Transitional Assistance has been nearly cut in half in recent years, from $36 million two years ago to $18.9 million for the budget proposed for the coming year.
The department gets much of its funding from the federal government, which has increased the state’s allocation in recent years to $446 million in the proposed budget.
Advocates attribute the reductions in state spending, in part, to an ongoing decline in the number of people seeking welfare benefits and other forms of assistance.
The number of families on the state’s primary cash assistance program, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has declined by half since the 1990s, to about 32,000 receiving $447 per month, according to the agency.
The state currently spends about $15 million a month on the welfare program.
Baker, a Republican who vowed to reform the welfare system, has proposed shrinking the number of families who qualify for cash assistance.
His plan, which wasn’t included in the House budget approved two weeks ago, would require those who apply for cash assistance to list federal aid they also receive from Supplemental Security Income toward their overall income.
Advocates say that would mean 5,700 fewer families would qualify for the benefit.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.