STATE HOUSE – Rep. Tina L. Spears and Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have introduced legislation which will help individuals keep some access to crucial human services programs and benefits, even if their incomes rise above eligibility standards.
“If a family’s provider picks up extra shifts at work, does that mean they should lose their access to EBT funds or other necessary assistance programs? That’s the choice too many Rhode Islanders and their families are being forced to make every month right now and we as a state should be doing better to help and support our residents who are working hard but still struggling. This bill will allow Rhode Islanders to make more money for themselves and their families while also providing the still much-needed assistance that is crucial to their well-being and survival,” said Representative Spears (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly).
“We are unfortunately finding that individuals who rely upon crucial human services programs are losing access to all of their benefits if their incomes rise slightly above established eligibility levels. Now, this slight rise in income does not alleviate their need for assistance, yet people are being forced to make the choice of either purposely working less to keep their benefits or risk losing vital programs that support themselves and their families. Instituting a sliding scale in benefit reductions is a far more compassionate and effective way of encouraging individuals to work more while also keeping some of the safety net that they and their families rely upon,” said Chairman DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton).
For all health and human services programs, the legislation (2023-H 5998, 2023-S 0791) would authorize the secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) to develop a sliding scale decrease in benefits as a beneficiary’s income increases beyond the current 250 percent federal poverty level.
Currently, many benefits such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and child care assistance have “cliffs” based on incomes. Families that earn more than the cliff lose full access to these benefits. That means a worker who gets a raise or picks up too much overtime can find themselves suddenly having to buy health insurance or needing to pay full cost for child care.
By developing a sliding scale, EOHHS would allow benefits to be reduced slowly as family incomes rise, helping ensure workers can earn more without falling behind. That is especially important, advocates say, at a time when many employers, including nursing homes and grocery stores, are struggling to find enough staff.
Both Chairman DiPalma and Representative Spears point out that this issue has a significant impact on working individuals with disabilities.
“As a social worker that works with people with disabilities and the elderly, and as an individual working with disabilities, it is important to re-examine work incentives for Rhode Islanders with disabilities that would like to join or maintain their position in the workforce, but are fearful of the ramifications to their benefits,” said Michelle Machado, BSW, MSW, Rhode Island College, School of Social Work.
“Why are we deterring disabled Rhode Islanders from working more hours, essentially suppressing them by making them choose between essential services and trying to improve their economic standing. This forces people to remain in poverty and never be able to save for things like a home, unexpected medical situations and educational opportunities,” said Christina Battista, Supported Employment Coordinator at Skills for Rhode Island’s Future.
Representative Spears’ bill has been referred to the House Finance Committee and Senator DiPalma’s bill has been referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.