LINCOLN — It's been 25 years since Nebraska last bumped up monthly payments for parents and children receiving state assistance.
On Tuesday, State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln told colleagues on the Health and Human Services Committee that the time has come for another increase.
She cast the issue as a part of solving the state's child welfare problems.
“(Legislative Bill) 508 is intended to prevent the unnecessary entry of children into the child welfare system by addressing poverty, which is key to keeping children out of the system,” she said.
More than half of the children in Nebraska's child welfare system wind up there because of neglect, defined as the failure to provide for a child's basic physical, medical, educational and emotional needs.
Often that neglect can be traced to a family's poverty, Campbell said. Parents without money may not be able to afford adequate housing or keep the refrigerator stocked properly.
She said LB 508 would help ensure that families can provide for their children's basic needs, such as rent and clothing.
The bill would replace the current maximum payment with payments based on the standard of need, an income measurement used to determine whether families are eligible for help from the Aid to Dependent Children program.
Under a 1988 law, the maximum payment was set at $300 per month for a parent and child, with up to $75 more for each additional person in the family.
In practice, the State Department of Health and Human Services has not paid the maximum. A one parent/one child family gets $293 per month, with $71 added for each additional person in the family.
Under LB 508, payments would be set at 60 percent of the standard of need starting July 1, or $378 for the one parent/one child family. The rate would increase by 5 percent every two years, until reaching 70 percent of the standard of need.
Alicia Carter of Omaha, a single mother of two, said higher payment rates would mean she could change her daughter's diapers more often. To stretch her current payments, she said, she sometimes leaves the diapers on though they are wet.
Carter said she is trying to find a job but has had no luck so far. Last month, her car broke down on the way to a job interview.
Meanwhile, she and her children live in a room at her mother's house. Her ADC money pays for gas, car repairs, diapers, baby wipes, clothes and her share of utility costs.
Like most families on ADC, she also gets food stamps and Medicaid.
Thomas Pristow, children and family services director for HHS, opposed the proposal. He said he was concerned that LB 508 and three other proposals would overextend the federal block grant used to pay for ADC.
But Pristow said he does not dispute the need or the case laid out by backers of LB 508.
Sarah Helvey of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest said one of the federal goals of the ADC program is to keep children in their homes.
She said ADC rates should keep pace with foster care payment rates. In Nebraska, both have been among the nation's lowest.
State lawmakers increased foster care rates last year and are working on a longer-term method of setting the rates.
The committee also heard testimony about LB 430, introduced by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue.
Under the bill, state workers would no longer consider a family's assets in determining whether they qualify for ADC, child care subsidies and heating assistance.
She said that the state could save money and worker time by not having to verify applicants' assets. Other states that eliminated asset limits have seen little increase in the number of people qualifying for public benefits, she said.
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