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In Texas, you probably won't get welfare benefits — even if you qualify

Texas’ rolls of cash assistance recipients under its TANF program have steadily shrunk over the last two decades. Some experts say the bureaucracy guarding the state’s safety net makes it difficult to access those benefits, even for Texans who fit the requirements.

Betty Smith, who is the caretaker of 16 kids but was deemed ineligible for state aid, speaks at a Grand-Parent Support Group Inc. meeting in Houston on Oct. 19, 2017.

Editor's note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today.

HOUSTON — A $733 federal disability check doesn’t stretch far each month when you have more than a dozen children to feed and clothe.

But don’t tell Betty Smith — the mother of four adopted youngsters (ages 10, 14, 16 and 18) and legal guardian of 12 of her grandchildren (ages 10 months to 16 years old) — that life threw her a raw deal.

“I’ve been blessed,” the 60-year-old Houston resident says in a conversation punctuated by thank-yous to Jesus.

The cancer diagnosis nine years ago that knocked her out of work? Now in remission, Smith says. Her ex-husband? “He normally tries to help” with the bills. And those dozen grandchildren? “They’re good to see another day” and better off with Smith than they would be in the state’s reeling foster care system, she says.

That’s not to say Smith would refuse help from the state of Texas. It’s just that she can’t figure out how to get it and why she’s been rejected.  

“I tried three times — went over there three times. Still couldn’t get it,” the weary-eyed grandmother recently explained to a room with a half-dozen other women in similar, if not less extreme circumstances. “They give you 12 of your grandkids but refuse to help you?”

With nods, head shakes and “mmm hmmms,” Smith’s fellow Grand-Parents Support Group members indicated they understood her frustration. They had felt it, too.

The grandparents gather every third Thursday in a southwest Houston community center to discuss the challenges of stepping in when their sons and daughters can’t raise their own children. Picking at plates heaped with salad, fruit and fried chicken, several grandparents shared stories of frustration when it came to getting government welfare assistance. Those interactions with bureaucracy left them feeling that state rules for distributing federal aid — including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — are incredibly harsh, and sometimes applied arbitrarily or incorrectly.

Social workers and advocates for poor families suggest that perception is a reality.

“We have to fight,” said Deborah Dickerson, president and founder of the 6-year-old Grand-Parents Support Group, Inc. The 62-year-old confronted that bureaucracy 12 years ago while raising four grandchildren of her own. The state rejected her TANF application, she said, because she made $7 per month more than the income limit.

“My pride wouldn’t let me come back,” Dickerson told the other grandparents in the white-walled room. “I was so humiliated, and just confused. I’m not going to beg.”

Over more than two decades, Texas’ rolls of cash assistance recipients under its TANF program have steadily shrunk. Fewer Texans are qualifying for cash assistance, freeing up millions in federal dollars that state lawmakers have shifted to core state programs, like Child Protective Services, or to help cover costs at facilities, like mental health state hospitals, that also serve middle- and upper-income Texans. But Texas’ poverty rate has largely remained consistent in that time, and requirements have gotten stricter for the few Texans who do qualify for TANF cash assistance, which totals $188 each month for a single parent or caretaker with two children.

What’s more, experts say, the acronym-laden bureaucracy guarding the state’s safety net makes it difficult to access those benefits, even for Texans who fit the requirements. Sometimes officials at the Health and Human Services Commission, the high-turnover agency that administers the TANF program, do not inform qualified applicants about their options, social workers and advocates told The Texas Tribune. Other times, inexperienced state workers don’t seem to know their own rules, they added.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand is taking advantage,” said Nicole Washington, a case manager at Methodist Children’s Home in Houston,which offers foster care and “family preservation” services.

Asked about the confusion, Christine Mann, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman, pointed to improvements at the agency. She said it recently reminded staffers about policies for handling TANF applications from non-parent caretakers, and it’s making other changes to its system. That includes updating an eligibility handbook and staff training.

As grandparent caretakers, the women in Dickerson’s group have more than one avenue to apply for TANF benefits.

A Texas program gives certain grandparents a one-time $1,000 payment for taking care of grandchildren. But assets like cars, retirement savings and Social Security benefits make it harder for some older adults to qualify. The state rejects grandparents who make more than twice the federal poverty level or have more than $1,000 in resources.

Grandparents and other “kinship” caregivers might qualify for “child-only” benefits. In those cases, state payments apply only to the children and not to the adult, and the caretaker could draw assistance for the kids even if their monthly income eclipses limits for those applying for family-wide benefits.

But the state frequently counts kinship caregivers’ income against them, policy experts and advocates say, leaving some who should qualify for benefits empty handed.

That doesn’t happen for kinship families applying for Medicaid, which operates under similar rules, said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning policy organization. But bureaucratic glitches leave the same families unable to draw TANF benefits.

“This has been going on for years,” Cooper said. “We’ve been talking to [the agency] for years.”

Mann said agency policy prohibits such denials for kinship caregivers.

Unclear is whether the confusion lies solely with state workers or in the design of benefits applications, which critics say could be clearer.

“People I’m dealing with at HHSC seem to care about this population, but it’s one of those bureaucracy things — changing a form is an epic event,” said Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, a network of private and nonprofit organizations in Houston.

Mann, the spokeswoman, said her agency plans to give staffers more help in deciding eligibility by upgrading its processing system. The new system will automatically re-determine eligibility when a kinship caretaker eclipses income limits — a change from the current manual process.

As for Smith’s case, Mann said she would need more personal information about the grandmother to know whether the agency properly rejected her application.    

In the meantime, Smith is trying to make do. “I just do what I got to do, and I pray,” she said.   

Smith is proud of her grandkids. One grandson is now starting football. Her 11th-grader is a talented amateur hairstylist and could become a beautician.

Smith is thinking about pursuing full-fledged adoptions to ensure stability for her grandkids.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she said.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and One Voice Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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