Study claiming some NH welfare recipients get $37k a year raises eyebrows
By MICHAEL COUSINEAU New Hampshire Union Leader
MANCHESTER - A new study says some welfare recipients receive $37,160 in benefits a year in New Hampshire, but a state welfare official says few, if any, get that much because they aren't eligible to collect from every available program.
"The study is structurally unsound," Terry Smith, director of the state Division of Family Assistance, said Friday.
Smith said the state doesn't track how much an individual welfare recipient collects in total from the various government assistance programs, but he said it was "very unlikely" that someone would collect from the seven different programs cited by the study.
The study, conducted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, concluded that welfare recipients in New Hampshire receive the equivalent hourly wage of $19.11, and someone working a job here would need to make nearly $40,000 a year to receive as much as a welfare recipient collects.
"They should be consolidating these programs and then put a cap in," said Michael Tanner, the study's co-author. "Some people may be getting a whole lot, and the states don't know and the federal government doesn't know."
Smith agreed a streamlined system would benefit states and the poor.
"I think that would be an ideal," he said. "A one-stop shop would determine eligibility, and clients would only go to one place."
But Smith said there is "nil" chance that Congress would make the necessary changes.
The study said New Hampshire notched the third-highest hike in benefits among states since Cato conducted a similar study in 1995, when adjusting for inflation. The overall benefits rose by $6,994 during that time, greater than everywhere else but Vermont ($9,367), the District of Columbia ($8,730) and Hawaii ($7,265).
The study acknowledged that not every welfare recipient would collect from every program, but included all of them to calculate an overall benefits total for every state.
Tanner said he didn't know how many people collect from all seven programs because states don't track such information, but he said they should.
Smith said programs have different eligibility requirements and only 19.5 percent of welfare recipients, for instance, receive housing assistance, which the study said amounts to $13,296. Smith said only half the people on welfare receive federal fuel assistance.
The primary cash program for the poor, according to the study, is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Smith said TANF provides a monthly cash payment of $675 for a household of three in New Hampshire. Last week, there were 7,926 people in the program spread among 3,652 families, including 5,551 children, he said.
In 2011, the Legislature made cuts to the TANF program by making eligibility more difficult, saving about $5.5 million in state funds yearly. The number of families on the program dropped from 6,108 in June 2011 to 4,144 in March 2012.
Food stamps, meanwhile, are calculated to provide 70 percent of what a family needs to spend minimally on food, Smith said. The maximum grant for food stamps for a household of three people is $526 a month.
Smith said TANF and food stamps typically don't cover a family's monthly rent and food.
"The question is: How can you buy more food if you can't pay the rent?" Smith said.
New Hampshire had 115,691 people on food stamps last week, with a median household benefit of $327.93 a month.
New Hampshire residents collected more than $165.2 million in food-stamp benefits for the year ending June 2013.Tanner said almost everyone using the TANF program gets food stamps and Medicaid medical coverage.
"The one that's questionable, and I grant that, is housing," Tanner said, referring to the number of people eligible for the $13,296 in housing assistance cited in the Cato study.
Smith said Medicaid "doesn't help them get enough food in the house and doesn't pay them for gas to get for a job. It keeps them from diverting those monies to medical-related costs.
"The study ranks New Hampshire's overall welfare benefits package ninth-highest in the nation, behind seven other states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii tops the list with a total benefit of $49,175. Massachusetts ranked third at $42,515.
The study also said that less than 42 percent of adult welfare recipients are actually working.
"Despite welfare reform back in '96, we're not doing a very good job of moving people from welfare to work," Tanner said.
Smith said New Hampshire's figure is around 47 percent, as low as it is because disabled adults are also included in that pool of people. Welfare recipients receiving TANF are required to be involved in work-related activities for at least 30 hours a week, or 20 hours a week for parents with children younger than 6.
"We find job settings for them to go to, so they learn job skills and they're in practice of getting up in the morning and going to a job," Smith said.
Individuals not doing that are penalized a portion of their benefits and are completely cut off after 10 weeks unless they have a good reason, Smith said.
"While the emphasis of the report seems to be on work, remember all of the vulnerable citizens who can't work are included," Smith said.
Manchester Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau said Manchester residents receive about $24 million a year in welfare assistance from various programs, including food stamps and fuel assistance.
That doesn't include medical care the two major hospitals write off for uninsured patients or the millions of dollars more given by social service agencies.
He said the city helps people in emergency situations.
"We're like the last resort," Martineau said, for help responding to eviction notices or getting needed medication. "There's money given to needy people in Manchester."