An unprecedented federal effort to reduce child poverty in America ground to a halt over the Christmas holidays after Congress failed to extend the expanded federal Child Tax Credit. The result is that millions of American families will no longer get monthly child allowances that have been paid out since July, and were included in the Build Back Better plan that remains stalled in the U.S. Senate amid unanimous opposition from Republicans and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. The New York Times’ Ben Casselman explains:
Now, the benefit — an expansion of the existing child tax credit — is ending, just as the latest wave of coronavirus cases is keeping people home from work and threatening to set off a new round of furloughs. Economists warn that the one-two punch of expiring aid and rising cases could put a chill on the once red-hot economic recovery and cause severe hardship for millions of families already living close to the poverty line.
Closer to home, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services is doubling the monthly cash assistance that very low-income families can receive through the federally funded Financial Independence Temporary Assistance Program (FITAP). As The Advocate’s Will Sentell reports, in Louisiana the program only helps a tiny fraction of families that need help—fewer than 4 in 100 children in poverty receive help through FITAP, and the program’s monthly payments were among the lowest in the country, before the change.
Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, praised DCFS for boosting the monthly payments, an issue that Moller’s group called attention to in 2016. However, Moller said Tuesday the federal block grants that finance the assistance have not kept pace with inflation. “In real terms the state has to make do with less every single year,” he said.
Teeing up 2022
In less than a month the Louisiana Legislature will convene for the first of at least two lawmaking sessions – the first focused on political redistricting, followed by a three-month regular session when everything except tax policy will be open for debate. Insurance reform, voting machines and classroom discussions of race are expected to be major topics for debate. And as the great Melinda Deslatte reports, in her final column for the Associated Press, money will always be a major focus:
Lawmakers in their regular legislative session will decide how to use $1.4 billion in unspent federal pandemic aid, along with a $699 million state surplus. Ideas include steering money to water and sewer improvements, transportation projects, broadband internet upgrades and the state’s dwindling unemployment trust fund. A portion of the surplus must go to the state’s “rainy day” fund and to pay down retirement debts.
Too many Louisiana lifers
Louisiana has made substantial progress in recent years in reducing its shameful, world-leading incarceration rate. But there are still far too many Louisianans behind bars, and one reason is that the state has too many people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The Advocate, The Times-Picayune and The Marshall Project have been reporting on this issue, and how Louisiana’s commitment to locking people until they die has left state prisons filled with geriatric inmates who are no longer a threat to society. A Nola.com | Baton Rouge Advocate editorial calls on the Legislature to act.
Excessive life sentences are the next frontier in the bipartisan campaign to reduce incarceration. Voters and victim family members reasonably expect that killers sentenced to life should serve their full sentences, even in cases where aging and health issues mean they are no longer a threat. But habitual offender laws, many enacted in the 20th century amid legitimate concerns about soft sentences for repeat criminals, have sometimes gone too far, especially in limiting discretion for judges.
Out in the cold, without a home
Temperatures dropped this week in South Louisiana after an unseasonably warm holiday season, bringing new problems for people experiencing homelessness. The Advocate’s Caroline Savoie reports that many people living on the streets are reluctant to accept help because of rules and restrictions that come with living in shelters. But advocates for people who are homeless say the real problem is that demand for services far exceeds the supply.
Matthew James, who started managing the Salvation Army shelter on Airline after he finished the organization’s rehabilitation program, opened the shelter at 4 p.m. on Dec. 15 as he does every day. Within a half hour of opening, 55 men filed into the building, claimed every available bed, and James had to start turning people away. “We do everything we can to get someone a bed,” he said, pointing to cots scattered in the shelter’s hallway. “When it gets cold, we take as many as 75 men in at night.”
In the New York Times, journalist Lori Teresa Yearwood chronicles the financial costs of her descent into homelessness: $54,000 in bills – including a massive hospital charge – that made her recovery much more difficult than necessary.
These bills are another way that American society criminalizes people experiencing homelessness — hidden penalties that can start with the towing and impoundment of the vehicles people sleep in and that can continue with a long list of misdemeanors, such as loitering, camping, asking for money in public and even standing in one place for too long. Being homeless is a nightmarish existence, and it was made much harder by these financial burdens.
Number of the Day
4,141 – Number of Louisianans serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. About 1 in 5 hail from New Orleans and about 2,500 are older than 60 (Source: Nola.com)