Opinion/Clausius-Parks and Katz: It’s time to raise the RI Works benefit amount

Paige Clausius-Parks and Linda Katz Guest columnists

Paige Clausius-Parks is a senior policy analyst at Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. Linda Katz is the policy director at the Economic Progress Institute.

While many of us may feel relieved with increasing numbers of vaccinations in RI and the gradual return to our previous lives, many low-income Rhode Islanders continue to face deep economic hardship. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), children in low-income communities, and families headed by women. Historical policies rooted in racism — policies that have barred and continue to limit access to wealth-producing opportunities — have left these communities disproportionately exposed and vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the subsequent economic downturn.

Rhode Island Works, our state’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, is designed to help very low-income families meet their basic needs by providing cash assistance and work supports, including employment services, SNAP benefits, health insurance, subsidized childcare, and a small annual clothing allowance for children. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $554 per month. This benefit amount provides $6 per person per day and has not been increased in 30 years.

Rhode Island has the flexibility to set the benefit amount for RI Works, but we haven’t taken advantage of this flexibility, we have not kept up with the rate of inflation, and we have not provided an increase like our New England neighbors. The RaisingRI Coalition, a group of 44 community, health care, social service and advocacy organizations, seeks to raise the RI Works benefit from the current 30% to 50% of the federal poverty level. The projected $12-million surplus of TANF funds for the next two fiscal years creates an opportunity to sufficiently pay for the benefit increase.

If we are committed to an equitable society and to learning from the lessons of this pandemic, then now is the time to turn rhetoric into action and increase the RI Works benefit amount. The increase as proposed by Senator Melissa Murray (S-226) and Representative Arthur Handy (H-5683) must be included in the state budget.

The low benefit amount of RI Works is rooted in a troubling history of anti-Blackness and racism in America. Stereotypes that associate poverty with being Black have led to racist beliefs, attitudes, and policies that continue to plague our society. The first iteration of TANF, Aid to Dependent Children, was created in 1935 within the Social Security Act. This program acknowledged the truth that there are times and situations when parents need meaningful assistance and support to lift them out of poverty. However, racist policymakers removed provisions that would require equal treatment to applicants regardless of race and authorized assistance only to “suitable homes,” limited assistance to children of color, or provided lower benefits to Black families.

The practice of keeping cash benefits low became a strategy of Southern states to protect the Southern economy that heavily relied on the low-wage labor of Black farmers. Benefits that were historically weak in the South are now weak in most states — including Rhode Island.

Nationally, Black families are less likely to have income supports from other sources compared with white families. According to national studies, white women report significantly higher amounts of income assistance from friends and family, suggesting that TANF plays a larger role in providing a financial safety net for Black children in need compared with white children in need.

Cash assistance policies are not race-blind. It is time to commit to the essential purpose of the cash assistance program and to do so being racially aware and equity-centered.

Rhode Island lawmakers have an opportunity to help families meet basic needs, raise families out of poverty, and promote a more equitable economic recovery by raising the RI Works benefit and investing in Rhode Island’s low-income children and BIPOC families.