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Commissioner Jeff McCue testified at Berkshire Community College on Monday.

DTA Commissioner Looks to Battle 'Cliff Effect' With Budget Request

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and state Sen. Adam Hinds chaired the hearing.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — There was once an employer who hired a worker who was on public assistance.
And the employee was good.
The employer offered a promotion or more hours. But the employee refused because it jeopardized their public assistance.
This story didn't happen just once. Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Jeff McCue has heard it multiple and calls it "the cliff effect."
What happens is that worker is limited in their assets to $2,500 and if they exceed that, they are no longer eligible for assistance. It can just be too risky for the worker to take that chance.
McCue is proposing a new way to tackle that issue. His plan is to give them a "running start." For an individual working, he suggests 100 percent of their wages will be exempt from that cap for six months. For the six months following that, half of the income would be exempt from the cap. The hope is that they'll build up enough to more easily transition off of public assistance.
"It would allow them and their families to get a running start on the cliff effect," McCue said. "This is an opportunity for us to try new things."
That plan hasn't been done with DTA in the past but it is one of three the commissioner is proposing for his budget this upcoming year aimed to combat multi-generational poverty. 
"We have to be disruptive in the area of multi-generational poverty," McCue said.
The first piece to that is that he wants to up the grant level for those who are qualified to work. He said 75 percent of his cases are for people who are exempted from working for one reason or another. The rest of the 25 percent are work eligible. Those who are work eligible, however, receive lesser benefits than those who don't. 
"That sends a message that work isn't worth it," McCue said. 
He is proposing evening out those grants to eliminate the incentive to become non-work required. His second proposal is to double the asset limit, allowing those who are eligible to work for more without jeopardizing their benefits. And thirdly, is the plan to exempt incomes for a period of time for those who start moving up the ranks.
The commissioner is also looking to allocate just short of $1 million toward partnering with transportation organizations to help those using the benefits get to and from jobs. 
He outlined those highlights in his budget proposal to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means at Berkshire Community College on Monday. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and state Sen. Adam Hinds chaired the meeting.
"I want to applaud your work on disrupting the cliff effect in increasing the asset limits and other things. It is something that I saw regularly in my work prior to coming to the Senate. I know this is just the first step toward getting this right," Hinds said.
However, Hinds joined the rest of the Berkshire delegation present in voicing concern for the end of the healthy initiatives program. That program provides additional credit for those who use the supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits at farmers markets.
McCue said the program was a success, but almost too much of a success. The funding for it was $1.3 million from 2014 and covered three years but $3.7 million worth of incentives were used. He said if the program kept its current form, it would cost the state in the tens of millions of dollars.
For that reason, the program is eyed to be cut from the offerings much to the chagrin of the Berkshire representatives because the benefits often help local farmers in the more rural Berkshires.
"This program has been highly successful. It brought not the usual suspects into our farmer's market and gives people choices for healthy food," Farley-Bouvier said, adding that not only does it help local farmers but also provides better nutrition value than the corporate boxed foods that are shipped to the county from other areas.
"We want to anything we can to give you additional support to help you grow it."
Farley-Bouvier said she would be interested in ways to change the program to make it more affordable for the state while still providing the benefits.
State Rep. John Barrett III suggested seeking private donations to subsidize the incentive for the farmer's market.
"There has to be some socially-conscience corporations that would step up to the plate," Barrett said.
McCue's testimony was just the first in a full day's worth of testimony from the state's health and human services agencies as the Legislature moves through the budgeting process. The commissioners of the Department of Children and Families, Youth Services, Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Commission for the Blind, and the Office of Refugees and Immigrants also testified.

Tags: fiscal 2019,   legislative hearing,   public hearing,   social services,   state budget,   

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