Opinion Extra

Keith: It's time to remove S.C.'s handicap

How much is a child in South Carolina worth? Not nearly as much as a child in Connecticut, according to the federal program designed to alleviate poverty. The federal government provides the state of Connecticut $1,052 a year for each child in poverty. The same federal fund values poor children in South Carolina at $179 per child. Why? Because of South Carolina's handicap.

When I use the word handicap, you might think I am speaking about our underfunded school systems or our high unemployment rate. And yes, those factors certainly make it hard to achieve our desired results, but the handicap I am talking about is one that has largely been kept a secret. This handicap was built into the federal welfare reform legislation, giving South Carolina less federal money to lift families out of poverty than almost any other state.

Before welfare was reformed in 1996, the more dollars a state invested in welfare, the more federal dollars it got back for the program. States with big tax bases invested lots of state dollars and got lots of federal dollars back, while states such as South Carolina with small tax bases had few dollars to invest and therefore got few dollars back.

The welfare reform law set a limit on how much federal money could be spent, and created a new goal: moving families in poverty to work. Of course a new law meant a new way of distributing the money to states. High-income states wanted to keep getting the big federal dollars, while low-income states wanted a new formula based on the number of families in poverty. As is often the case, the high-income states won the fight and received the lion's share of the money.

Some poor states were thrown a bone, a "supplemental payment," in exchange for their votes to pass the legislation. Our state did not get a bone. In fact, South Carolina was the only state in deep poverty that did not get any extra help. South Carolina was held to the same federal requirements, which cost a lot more, as every other state - we were just given less money with which to meet those requirements.

Most of the families receiving assistance in South Carolina's welfare programs are single parents with one or two children. To help them move off welfare and into employment, they receive assistance for job training, job skills, transportation to employment and child care while employed. But our state has only enough funds to serve 25 percent of the families eligible for child care assistance and even fewer dollars to address a family's need for transportation and training.

We were handicapped from the beginning, and we have remained handicapped for 13 years. Now we have a chance to put things right.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act is up for reauthorization next year. States are planning to ask Congress to add more money to make up for the buying power lost to inflation over the past 13 years. This new money needs to be distributed using a new formula - one based on poverty. A formula based on the percentage of each state's population living in poverty would benefit 33 of the 50 states. It would target federal dollars to states with high poverty. And South Carolina would receive a fair and equal share of the money.

Over the past 13 years, South Carolina has lost $150 million in TANF funding. This is money that did not help S.C. families move from poverty to self-sufficiency. Using the current formula, South Carolina would receive only $32 million per year, but with the suggested new formula, based on need, South Carolina would receive $93 million. This extra $61 million would make a significant impact on our state. It's now time to get our fair share of funding.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina is very familiar with the poverty in our state. It is a condition we work hard to change every day. I know what a difference new funding can make in our state for families in poverty. For that reason, we are planning to do all we can to make sure South Carolina and other Southern states get an equitable share of any new TANF funding. We plan to join the Department of Social Services and the Southern Governors' Association to make sure Congress gets it right this time, so that South Carolina no longer has to work under a handicap. Because we know that the children of South Carolina are our pride and our future, and they deserve better.