The General Assembly proposed a bill last session to reverse an arcane welfare policy limiting cash assistance for low-income families. Maryland was one of only a handful of states with this rule.

The Department of Human Services told lawmakers it would change the policy without need for legislation.

A year later, it still hasn’t.

The inaction has confused legislators and advocates alike, who said the policy change could be funded through a multimillion-dollar surplus in federal funds set aside for Maryland’s cash assistance program.

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“It’s disappointing that we had seen during sessions that [the DHS was] inclined to make the change and then, going through their budget, it obviously wasn’t in there.” said Sen. Shelly Hettleman of Baltimore County. Hettleman, a Democrat, sponsored the bill that would have mandated the change last year.

The broken promise comes after the DHS’ years-long struggle with benefits theft, totaling over $18 million in Maryland alone. The department announced in February that it is now fully reimbursing eligible theft victims after a Baltimore Banner investigation revealed that the DHS was shortchanging welfare theft victims for months and violating state law.

Maryland’s temporary cash assistance is a welfare program to support families experiencing economic hardship with extra funds every month. Currently, recipients who also live in subsidized housing get $60 less a month in cash assistance than those who do not.

The bill proposed last year would have prohibited limiting cash assistance for recipients living in subsidized housing. DHS officials told lawmakers the department would instead change the policy, which would give thousands of families additional funds.

Since then, lawmakers and advocates have followed up with the DHS, voicing concerns that the policy is still in place, which disproportionately affects low-income Black families.

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In response, DHS Secretary Rafael Lopez told advocates and lawmakers that while the department is “philosophically aligned” and “certainly open to that on the table,” the DHS cannot currently commit to the change as it’s concentrating on replacing stolen benefits.

The DHS did not respond to a request for comment.

As of 2023, Maryland is one of only eight states that limit cash assistance for recipients in subsidized housing. The other states are Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and West Virginia.

“We shouldn’t be penalizing people for accessing programs that are meant to help them get by,” said Jasmin Aramburu, a state policy fellow at the nonprofit Maryland Center on Economic Policy.

‘Philosophically aligned’ but refusing to commit

When Gov Wes Moore took office in January 2023, he highlighted child poverty as a legislative cornerstone for his administration. Along with now reimbursing for benefits theft, the Moore administration has also instituted a statewide child care scholarship to allow more low-income families quality child care and early education.

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Hettleman told the Senate’s Finance Committee later that month that she had a bill that “goes directly to advance that goal” — Senate Bill 160, which would eliminate the $60 deduction in monthly cash assistance for families in subsidized housing.

More than two-thirds of Marylanders who receive cash assistance are children, Hettleman explained, and this bill would give them an additional $60 a month for food, transportation and other basic needs.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is a federal program that uses a combination of federal and state funds to support families experiencing employment insecurity, health complications or other economic emergencies. Maryland funds its temporary cash assistance program chiefly through TANF funds.

States can decide eligibility restrictions for the funds, such as limiting access if recipients already participate in other welfare programs. In Maryland, that became $60 deductions in monthly cash assistance for those who live in public housing, receive housing vouchers or receive rental assistance.

The policy change would have cost an estimated $3.2 million this year and $4.2 million annually in future years. What’s more, according to advocates and lawmakers, the cost could be supplemented with the state’s historic surplus in temporary assistance funds — which was projected to be $50 million this year and $35 million next year.

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“After the bill hearings, the Department informed lawmakers that it would change its regulations to stop this practice, without the need for a change to Maryland’s TCA statute,” anti-poverty advocates wrote in an August letter to Secretary Lopez.

“It has been six months since the bill hearings and the Department continues to reduce TCA benefits by $60 per month when the family resides in subsidized housing,” it continued.

Secretary Lopez responded to the advocates in late November.

“At this time, we are not able to honor your petition,” Lopez wrote. “Please know that from a policy perspective, we are philosophically aligned with your request.”

Hettleman again asked Lopez in a Health and Human Services Committee in late January 2024 about the policy change, saying she “had the impression there would be a way to work through that in the interim.”

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Lopez responded that while the department is “certainly open to that on the table”, because of the nationwide rise in benefits theft, the department is focusing most of its efforts on replacing stolen food and cash benefits.

“We actually are going to take a little bit more time than we thought to untangle the way in which SNAP and TANF benefits are used writ large across the Department of Human Services,” Lopez told state legislators in a public hearing in late January 2024.

Disproportionately penalizing Black families

The monthly $60 deduction in cash assistance has a disproportionate impact on low-income Black families.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that roughly 39,000 children received temporary cash assistance in 2021, more than half of whom were Black. In Maryland, according to the University of Maryland School of Social Work, two-thirds of adults on cash assistance are Black and the vast majority are women, as of 2022.

Policy fellow Aramburu said that policies that lead to reductions in assistance are often inadvertently rooted in decades old racial and socioeconomic stereotypes.

“There’s this notion that there are certain families and mothers that are worthy of additional support, and usually, that’s been white and middle-class women in the past, very often excluding black unmarried women,” Aramburu said.

Enrolling in benefits is an extensive process that includes a weeks-long, sometimes months-long, approval period requiring dozens of documents, such as citizenship documents, tax forms, child support documents and proof of identity. Marylanders are eligible for cash assistance for up to 60 months, though there are extenuating circumstances that can extend it.

Maryland is regularly ranked as one of the most expensive states to live in, according to an October 2023 report Aramburu wrote for the Maryland Center on Economic Policy.

According to the report, a family of three would need to make over $61,920 to pay roughly $1,548 in monthly rent to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore. To afford rent, a household would need to make an income equivalent to two full-time jobs at minimum wage. Meanwhile, the maximum cash assistance that household would be eligible for is $624, less than half of the monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

Aramburu said that subsidized housing would allow the same family to put those funds to other living expenses instead of rent. But under the current Maryland cash assistance policies, that amount of cash assistance would drop to $565 a month.

“It’s really expensive to live in Maryland, so when we don’t address bigger issues of housing affordability and accessibility to subsidized housing, then, of course we are going to have families that are going to turn to different safety nets to make it through,” Aramburu said.

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