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CBS 6 investigates why tax-funded self-sufficiency programs are failing families: 'It's crisis after crisis'

Posted at 5:44 PM, Nov 21, 2023

CHARLES CITY COUNTY, Va. -- Checking out the fall foliage in Charles City County along the James River, six-year-old Colton and his mom Rachel Morris explore one of life’s greatest free activities: nature.

Morris and her husband home-school Colton because he has a sensory processing disorder that makes it difficult for him to learn in a traditional setting.

The Charles City couple also has three other boys, ages 15, 9, and four, and, as much as Morris wishes this was not the case, they’re struggling.

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“Unfortunately, I’ve had to ask for help,” Morris said. “Nobody asks to be put into this situation, and you can find yourself in a situation you never thought possible. I never envisioned this for myself, I never thought I would have to do this, and I used to be one of those people who would look at people and say why can’t you just go get a job?”

Morris, who has a degree from Randolph Macon College, works from home part-time for up to 30 hours a week.

Her annual salary is just over $24,000.

Morris’s husband Steven was recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure and is unable to work.

He applied for disability benefits on February 22, but his application is still being processed.

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“I could potentially go and find another part-time job and work two jobs, but it’s really hard with childcare and having to be everybody’s caregiver, and being at different appointments for people just trying to do everything for everybody,” Morris said.

The family does receive government assistance in the form of food stamps from WIC and SNAP, and Medicaid.

And, while Morris used to qualify for assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, she said she no longer qualifies because she makes too much in her part-time job.

“I am overqualified for that but underqualified for everything else,” Morris said.

And, even when she did qualify, she said the state’s workforce development program that’s part of TANF, otherwise known as TANF-VIEW, did not help her to become self-sufficient.

“I was already looking for jobs, I was already out there trying to find a better position,” Morris said. “The childcare piece is really what is holding me back from working more.”

Her words echo what a new state report uncovered about the state’s self-sufficiency programs, TANF-VIEW and SNAP E & T: they’re not working.

Despite taxpayers spending more than $26 million on them in fiscal year 2023, according to numbers provided to CBS 6 by the Virginia Department of Social Services, just one percent of Virginia households that need government assistance to get by even participate in the programs.

And, of those that do, just two percent of VIEW clients, and seven percent of SNAP E & T clients improved their wages enough that they became self-sufficient.

Morris’s family coach at Thrive Virginia, a Central Virginia nonprofit devoted to lifting people into self-sufficiency, has some theories on why the programs appear to be failing.

“The focus and intention is great with these programs, but I think if they had a more intimate look at these families' lives they would see what they really need," Liz Brown said. "The emotional support, the financial support, and then with things like TANF they cut the financial support once you reach a certain income, so it’s not helping anyone at the end of the day."

Thrive Virginia is one of six nonprofits selected by the state to participate in a pilot program that uses TANF funds known as the Whole Family Approach Project.

Whole Family is a supplementation of programs like TANF-VIEW or SNAP E & T.

“It’s different from TANF and VIEW. It’s different from SNAP in the sense that you don’t get a case worker who tells you here is your number, here is what you can get monthly, here is what we can do for you, talk to you next time. It’s the one-on-one personal relationship with the families. In my personal belief I feel it helps them so much more than just feeling like a number,” Brown said.

Family coaches can use funds to help families with very specific problems they are facing, like a car that will not start, a rent payment they cannot make, or a utility bill that is past due.

“I am so glad that Thrive Virginia is there. They have helped us tremendously with helping us with our electricity bill, and finding programs like helping to pay for the kids' shoes for school, various things they do to support,” Morris said.

“They’re just doing what they can and living paycheck to paycheck trying to find the ability to push forward, but again when it’s crisis after crisis, or it’s transportation, then Medicaid is cut, then SNAP cut, then WIC cut, it’s a vicious cycle,” Brown said.

Brown said the Whole Family program can help families build a safety net in case they do get cut from government benefits when they start making too much money, and she wants the state to expand the program to more non-profits like hers.

“So if the government will cut SNAP or cut Medicaid at a certain point, then provide additional funding or additional community action agencies like us to supplement because otherwise we are just going to keep seeing these families drop into poverty/homelessness. I don’t think that’s a world anyone wants to live in,” Brown said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services is asking the General Assembly to grow the pilot from six to 15 sites.

A report from the Virginia Community Action Partnership found more than half of participants improved their annual income by nearly $10,000 from starting levels.

And, they saw a 20 percent reduction in the number of households that fell below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.

Changes Morris said are having a tangible impact on her family’s quest to achieve self-sufficiency, and she is hopeful the state will grow the program.

“I really think if there were more programs out there to help people like us and don’t say you’re making too much money to qualify for them when you’re working only part-time and you make just two dollars over the program limit. There has got to be some more leeway, there has got to be some sort of change coming,” Morris said.

CBS 6 requested an interview with someone from Virginia DSS, which administers the state’s self-sufficiency programs, to try to get an idea of why they believe participation is so low, and what they see in terms of solutions, but they declined our request.

A spokesperson told CBS 6 that the availability of childcare is a barrier to some participants, and in some cases, an activity, like training, may not have started or has just been completed in which case the participant may be between assignments and appear as an inactive participant.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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