Coalition Wants To Raise Cash Benefit For Poor Rhode Islanders

by Ian Donnis

A coalition launched a campaign Wednesday to increase the benefit paid to poor Rhode Island families through the RI Works program.

According to the Raising Rhode Island Coalition, the benefit has not been raised since 1991 -- the longest such increase in New England.

“This has put the purchasing power of families significantly below what it needs to be to meet basic needs,” Linda Katz, policy director of the Economic Progress Institute, said in a telephone interview.

RI Works is administered by the state Department of Human Services.

A family of three in the RI Works program gets a monthly benefit of $554 -- about half as much, Katz said, if the program had kept paid with inflation since 1991.

The Raising Rhode Island Coalition is calling for increasing the benefit over two years, from 30 percent to 50 percent of the federal poverty level.

Asked why the benefit has not been increased in so long, Katz said, “These families, I would say, are pretty invisible at the Statehouse. It is a population of people that is really misunderstood in terms of who the families are.” She said most families rely on RI Works for a relatively short time.

A deficit of roughly $200 million needs to be wiped out ahead of the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. That raises uncertainty about what will wind up in the legislative budget.

A spokesman for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said Ruggerio planned to attend an event launching the campaign to raise the RI Works benefit.

Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said, "All budget proposals will get a hearing from the House Finance Committee, beginning next week, and will be evaluated in context of the policy goals and budget priorities."

According to a state budget document on the spending plan passed in June of 2019, "The Assembly provided $23.3 million [for RI Works], which is $189,000 more than the May caseload estimate to reflect the elimination of the 24-month in any 60-month period limitation. This is assumed to increase the number of persons by 84 over the May estimate."