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County residents voice support for aid program

November 11, 2001

By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the Herald

Local residents and social service employees voiced strong support for the Federal government’s Temporary Aid for Needy Families program, known statewide as Colorado Works.

TANF, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1997, will be up for congressional reauthorization next year.

Lezlie Mayer, interim director for social services in La Plata County, said Thursday night at a public hearing on TANF, that the program is superior to AFDC.

"Our numbers have decreased because we’ve had success," she said in an interview prior to the meeting. "AFDC was an entitlement program without time limits, so we had generations of families on AFDC. With the shift in ’97 to TANF, the goal is no longer entitlement, but giving support to people gaining employment and self-sufficiency."

MaryKay Cook, manager of Colorado Works in Denver, which coordinates the TANF program statewide, expressed support for the newer program.

"The idea is to keep everyone doing something – maybe it’s work; maybe it’s preparing for work," she said.

TANF is a monthly cash-assistance program for poor families with children younger than 18. Recipients are required to work and can only receive benefits for a maximum of 60 months, or 5 years. County departments of Colorado Social Services, which also provide food stamps, Medicaid and child care, are allowed to determine how to administer the program based upon the needs of their communities.

This flexibility is a major strength of TANF, said many of the community members at the meeting. "TANF allowed counties to ask, ‘What services and supports need to be developed and wrapped around other assistance to help people work toward self-sufficiency?’" said Kevin Richards, director of Colorado Works.

The coordinated efforts of various service agencies in La Plata County under TANF helped Cristy Cain get back to work despite a disability that occurred 10 years ago.

Chronic ear infections developed into tumors that led to major hearing loss, and the subsequent loss of her job as a marketing representative, she said.

"In ’97 when the government introduced ‘welfare to work,’ I was very apprehensive," she said. "I thought, ‘I have such huge barriers – am I going to wander into the forest and just live there forever or what?’"

But the services Cain received, from gas money and insurance vouchers to computer training and surgery to remove her tumors, helped her regain financial independence.

But despite TANF’s successes, the general consensus was that there is still room for improvement. The need to extend the time limit for benefits in some circumstances was raised several times.

Carol Simmons, executive director of the domestic-violence advocacy program Alternative Horizons, said that the percentage of recipients allowed to extend benefits (20 percent) is a statewide total, rather than the amount allotted to each county.

The high cost of living in the region, the downturn in the economy, the need to provide food stamps to immigrants and the easing of limitations on transferring TANF funds to child care were other recurring concerns.

Dedra Millich, director of Social Services for the Southern Ute Tribe, said she would like to see counties give full faith and credit to tribal courts, with emphasis on child-support enforcement. "Some tribal members wouldn’t need TANF if they could get their child support," Millich said.

Richards suggested audience members contact their congressional representatives about voting to reauthorize TANF, and against decreasing funding.

Delina DiSanto invited citizens to bring comments about the program to Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s new Durango office at 679 E. 2nd Ave, the old Morehart building.

Questions or concerns about TANF can be e-mailed to: coworks.issues@state.co.us.

Jennifer Reeder is a free-lance journalist and a volunteer hotline advocate at Alternative Horizons.


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