The MetroWest Daily News: Low-income families need more help to stay out of poverty

7/10/09
By John Hilliard

Some state lawmakers say a mix of educational, financial and employment reforms would allow low and moderate-income residents, along with those on welfare, to break “a cycle of poverty.”

There’s a stereotype that those who are low-income aren’t making the effort to go on to college or get a job,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “But we found the exact opposite.”

The state’s 25-member asset development commission, led in part by Eldridge, recommended 18 steps to provide better educational opportunities and help people save more money.

The recommendations would also help welfare recipients leave public assistance through financial education, tax credits, easing restrictions on saving money, and other measures, according to a report issued last month by the board. Altogether, those three groups total more than 834,000 households – about 43 percent of all the working-age households in the state.

That figure includes more than 277,000 households with incomes of less than $22,000 a year, with people who work in service industries while relying on government aid.

Under current regulations, low-income families with government aid lose those benefits when they begin to earn more money than rules allow. The steep decrease in aid often makes staying on welfare more attractive than earning more money, according to the report.

Automobile ownership can count against the level of a welfare recipient’s assistance and can limit work options if a worker can’t drive to a job, the report said.

A car is especially important to holding a job in MetroWest, given the limited public transportation available in the region, Eldridge said.

Currently, “it’s a very counterproductive system that ensures the cycle of poverty continues,” said Eldridge.

Claudia Germain, a captain with the Salvation Army Community Corps Center in Waltham, said that without a college degree, many low-income residents on public assistance are limited to jobs that don’t pay enough.

“They want to work, (but) the job doesn’t pay enough money to sustain a family,” said Germain.

Eldridge said a key component would be expanding the scope of the state’s earned income tax credit, allowing low-income taxpayers to save more of their money which would serve as a greater incentive for them to return to work.

Many of the recommendations would take legislative action, and some goals would have to wait a bit, and be achieved over the next five years, given the problems with the state’s finances, according to the commission’s final report.

The board spent more than a year reviewing ideas, and included testimony from welfare recipients from Boston, Lowell and Worcester, during their deliberations, said Eldridge.

A few ideas have already been officially proposed: Eldridge filed a bill that would allow recipients to save money for educational use, easing auto ownership penalties and increase the financial asset limit from $2,500 to $5,000 – which would allow recipients to save more money without threatening state assistance.

Jerry Desilets, planning director with the Southern Middlesex Opportunity Council, said he supports Eldridge’s bill.

“If you want people to work, they need a motivation to do it…you want them to build up assets to get out and live independently,” said Desilets.

Also, state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, filed a bill that would block owners of foreclosed properties from evicting lease-abiding tenants unless there is a reason to do so, such as criminal behavior or not paying rent.

According to Chandler’s office, the bill is meant to ease the damage wrought by the home mortgage crisis – people in about 30,000 households face eviction statewide from foreclosure petitions filed in the first 11 months of 2008.

“As we’re thinking of reforms in the middle of this crisis, we shouldn’t forget those who are less well off,” said Eldridge.

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