Lawmakers and advocates for low-income residents hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic are pressing for short-term relief that could help families, disabled and older Massachusetts residents struggling to pay rent, buy food and pay utilities.
In the first digital-only public hearing in history of the commonwealth, the state legislatures’s Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities heard several stories Monday from low-income parents and advocates whose clients have been heavily impacted by the coronavirus, which has thrown state and local economies into turmoil and heightened financial and public health challenges for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents.
Nearly two dozen testified in favor of House Bill 4622, which would provide an additional month of benefits through Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC). The legislation, which was introduced in late March and remains under review by the joint committee, would boost TAFDC by $17 million and EAEDC by $6 million. No one spoke against the bill.
TAFDC and EAEDC benefits typically include “two monthly payments, health insurance and employment support while you work to get back on your feet,” according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance.
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the committee chairwoman, said the hearing’s personal stories highlighted the challenges families faced during the pandemic, with many scrambling to find money for food, laundry detergent and costly heating bills.
State Rep. Marjorie Decker, one of the bill’s cosponsors, said the measure would provide a “one-time maximum grant” that would “reach a lot of our seniors and individuals who are disabled” in communities hit hard by the virus. She noted the legislation created no new regulations or programs, but used “the process that currently exists to get resources to those families.”
“To not do that is to not recognize the impact of this virus on these communities that are suffering disproportionately,” Decker said. “The people who are most vulnerable are not an afterthought.”
Thorin Grey, a disabled Pittsfield single parent facing homelessness amid the crisis after fleeing domestic abuse, was already struggling to obtain safe, affordable housing. With a limited Social Security income well below the market rate for housing, Grey faced lengthy wait times through housing authorities despite multiple apartments sitting vacant.
“Now, due to COVID-19, all subsidized move-ins have been put on hold,” said Grey, whose health had declined without weekly physical therapy sessions, and whose daughter has been sick “for the entirety of our stay” at a congregate family shelter where social distancing isn’t easy.
Grey said they’ve reached out to lawmakers, advocates and the media but have struggled to find help.
“Our families are in danger,” Grey said. “As a society, we are only as safe as our most vulnerable.”
Katie Evans, a family mobility mentor with Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), shared the experiences of a single mother taking care of two young children.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the woman was “staying on track” with a weekly and monthly budget planner and added help from TAFDC, Evans said. But the woman was furloughed from her job without pay, “at a time when prices for household essentials, food and disinfectant, especially in corner stores, are becoming inflated,” Evans said.
Many families, Evans added, face higher-than-normal utility costs due to increased hot water use for sanitation and greater reliance on electricity because of more time spent at home and online learning.
“The calls we are receiving from families every day are heartbreaking,” said Sarah Coughlin, board president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Coughlin argued the bill could be a “small step to mitigate the harsh consequences” of the virus, including children left hungry and families unable to pay bills to maintain online access, jeopardizing both online learning and health care.
State Sen. Sal DiDomenico, a cosponsor, said the legislation could “help more than 50,000 children” statewide, and noted that lawmakers were looking ahead at “a bigger bill we hope to pass at a future date.”