Background on Cash Assistance

The conversation about welfare fraud is going to continue over the next few weeks as the Senate develops its own package of reforms. As background to that, I thought it would be helpful to lay out some basic facts about cash assistance in Massachusetts.

The primary focus of concern in the recent conversations about fraud has been the cash assistance program for families in need: Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC).  This is the largest of several programs that provide cash assistance.

TAFDC is funded, in part, by the federal government through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant. Federal legislation defines basic national parameters. States define their own programs within those parameters. The major provisions of the Massachusetts program are outlined in the “state plan” and detailed in state regulations. The program is administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA).

According to DTA, the current case load is a little over 50,000 family units in Massachusetts. The total number of recipients is just over 100,000, suggesting that the average size of the family unit served is just a little over two — in other words, that most cases involve a single mother and a child.

Benefit levels range from $388 per month for a household of one (e.g., a pregnant mother) living in public or subsidized housing up to $1388 per month for a family of 10 living in unsubsidized housing. A single parent with two children living in subsidized housing would receive $593 per month. The average monthly grant per family in Fiscal 2012 was $456. The total annual amount of the benefits is approximately $300 million in Massachusetts, but varies according to economic conditions.

Here are a few key facts about eligibility for cash benefits:

  • TAFDC is available only to citizens and legal immigrants.
  • Recipients must reside in Massachusetts.
  • Generally, recipients may only receive benefits for two years in any five year period. This limit may be waived for parents who are unable to work because disability, a child under two, or their own age being over 60.
  • Generally, recipients are subject to a work requirement — 30 hours per week or 20 if their youngest child is between 2 and school age. Recipients who cannot find a job are required to perform community service. Single parents caring for children under 2 are not subject to the work requirement.
  • Teen parents must have a high school diploma or a GED or be working to obtain one. In general, they must live at home or in a supervised setting.
  • Pursuant to the family cap rule, recipients can not receive increased benefits by having additional children.

The state plan says that “Massachusetts’ goal is to help families achieve economic self-sufficiency through meaningful employment.” In addition to requiring work, Massachusetts makes available a number of employment training programs for recipients.

TAFDC provides cash assistance through direct payments to a recipient’s bank account, or, if the recipient has no bank account, through an EBT card. An EBT card can be used to pay for goods or to withdraw cash.

In 2012, the legislature passed a law prohibiting use of cash benefits for non-necessities like alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, jewelry and pornography. Additionally, cash benefits cannot be used in establishments that sell these types of items. Some stores have computerized systems that prevent use of EBT cards for these purchases, but the limits can be circumvented by the use of cash.

The program rules for TAFDC appear to be fairly sound. The concerns surfaced recently appear to be about whether the rules are being followed. That will be the primary focus of our attention in the legislative effort over the coming weeks.


Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.