WASHINGTON – Maryland was sitting on $99.3 million in federal funds intended to assist low-income families at the end of the last fiscal year, according to a report by a coalition of advocates for the poor.
The report Thursday by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income said that Maryland has failed to spend 15 percent of the $660 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant funding it has received since 1996.
Of the unspent money the state was holding on Sept. 30, 1999, the coalition said Maryland had plans for $52.1 million, but had not yet spent it. The report said the state had not indicated how it planned to spend the remaining $47.2 million.
But a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources called the coalition’s figures outdated and inaccurate. Erlene Wilson conceded that there was $47.2 million in the bank on Oct. 1, but said “those monies are now being transferred” to programs to assist the poor.
A great deal of funding is being put into child care subsidies and programs for families headed by teen-aged parents and grandparents, Wilson said. “Some funds are being allocated for after-school programs,” she said.
The National Campaign for Jobs and Income, an initiative of the Washington-based Center for Community Change, said in its report Thursday that Maryland is one of 45 states that are depriving low-income earners of cash assistance they need from TANF.
The TANF program replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in 1996, as part of federal welfare reform. The new program is designed to give states more leeway in how they spend assistance funds, but critics charge there are loopholes that allow states to misuse funds.
“I think all Americans should be outraged that money that was supposed to go to low-income families is being diverted for other purposes,” said Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income.
“It’s not illegal, but Congress surely did not intend for this to happen …. It’s just plain wrong,” Bhargava said.
He said that federal law lets the state transfer money from TANF to other anti-poverty programs geared toward curbing drug abuse and providing childcare. He agrees with those goals, but questioned the shifting of money.
Bhargava said the states are creating surpluses by saving the money that they used to spend out of their own treasuries, and allowing TANF funds to pay for those programs now. Most of the states then spend the saved money on programs that may not be beneficial to the poor.
“In Maryland, they are doing two things,” with that saved money, said Steve Bartolomei-Hill, of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. He said the state is “putting money away for a rainy day, and they are also taking it away from welfare and spending in non-traditional welfare programs,” such as state Department of Education grants for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Bartolomei-Hill asked, “Are more people getting child care, or is the state reducing what it spends on child care and spending those money on other things?
“The state will likely dispute the numbers …. They will say they’re old figures and they’re not sitting on any money at all,” said Bartolomei-Hill, whose organization monitors budget, tax policy and issues that affect the state’s “vulnerable population.”
That is pretty much what Wilson said, calling the issue a non-story and the report nothing more than “this group’s take on what has occurred.”
“There’s nothing new here. We talked about this back in September,” she said.
Bhargava said the report was released this week to “put poverty issues on the national agenda. A lot of states are focusing on reducing the welfare rolls, but not on reducing the number of impoverished people, he said.
“We have the money, we know how to do it, it’s just a question of political will,” he said.