Community groups seek larger role in fighting poverty

As Reported by Kaitlyn Budoin and Michael P. Norton/ State House News Service:

Community action groups often associated with getting heating assistance to people who need it want the Legislature to give them a broader mission that reflects their efforts in areas like food assistance and financial literacy.

Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, and Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy, urged colleagues Tuesday to pass a bill to provide resources to the state’s 23 community action agencies and update state laws to reflect a holistic approach to services by creating a line item to administer flexible funding. This is the third time Chan, a Quincy Democrat, has filed the legislation.

The bill would also establish a trust fund to finance innovative, community-based programs and services, change language to reflect the Massachusetts Association for Community Action as the center for anti-poverty in Massachusetts and form a council to review current programs and recommend improvements.

At an advocacy event, Moore said the wealth of positive economic indicators can obscure the fact that many Massachusetts residents are living in poverty and require public assistance and services, and that the proposed bill would allow agencies to better help those residents.

“Hopefully, the changes in the definitions and the flexibility it would provide the administrations will really address the needs of our community members,” Moore said.

Chan said the approval of the legislation would improve the ability of community action agencies to respond to needs in a changing world. As the federal government “peels back” assistance “the state has to pick up the difference,” he said.

Nancy Wagman, the Kids Count director at the Massachusetts and Budget Policy Center, gave a presentation on Massachusetts Association for Community Action’s report “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward.”

The May 2018 report found that anti-poverty policies have long-lasting effects, and that Massachusetts’ public policies have effectively cut poverty in half in the state. However, federal funding cuts affect many state-provided services and recently approved federal tax cuts could put a large dent into funding for services.

“One out of every four dollars in our state budget is a federal dollar,” Wagman said.

Also discussed were funding requests for the fiscal 2020 budget, including increasing funding for Head Start programs, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, rental vouchers and unaccompanied youth housing services.

Advocates said these increases will help agencies combat youth homelessness, address poverty, and increase affordable and accessible early education and care.

Dozens of lawmakers signed letters to Gov. Charlie Baker last month calling for $30 million in state money to offset cuts in federal programs for heating assistance. Lawmakers said the federal government cut heating assistance by $11 million this year, bringing the state’s share of federal heating aid down to $136 million from $200 million several years ago.

Baker filed a supplemental budget last week that included $11 million for low-income heating assistance to “offset” federal cuts.

Beth Ann Strollo, CEO of Quincy Community Action Programs, ended the meeting by asking lawmakers to help increase the funding in the supplemental budget to reach the original request.

“Please don’t let yesterday’s warm weather mislead you; as our presenters earlier said, our clients are out of their benefit level,” she said. “They are done with what the federal government has provided and it will be cold again.”

Read original article as reprinted in Patriot Ledger.