Everybody from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on down agrees: One of the state's biggest challenges is finding and training workers to fill good jobs now going begging. The challenge is particularly acute in manufacturing-intensive northeast Indiana.
In the coming legislative session,Republican Sen. Jon Ford of Terre Haute plans to offer a bill that could help address that problem as well as reanimate a potentially effective program aimed at helping families mired in deep poverty move forward – another challenge our region, the Terre Haute area and Indiana as a whole face in this time of burgeoning employment opportunities.
Ford, a member of the Indiana Senate's Family and Children Services Committee, said in an interview Tuesday the bill he plans to introduce would update the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, part of a federal block-grant plan created in the 1990s to allow states to help poor families with children work their way off public assistance.
TANF was envisioned as an improvement on earlier public-aid systems that critics said encouraged indolence. But what Indiana fashioned after the federal plan was enacted in 1996 has itself been allowed to atrophy, and it is all but AWOL in the battle against the stubborn depredations of deep poverty. In Allen County in October, just 287 families and 526 children were being served.
“I think that this bill will be pertinent to what we're trying to do here in Indiana in terms of getting more people back into the workforce,” Ford said.
The program requires families to show progress toward self-sufficiency, but also offers them tools to help them get there. ''It's not just the two years of assistance it affords, but it's also the services that come with the TANF,” Ford said. “Workforce development services come with it.” The program's support services may include pre-kindergarten and child care for a parent working on a GED or other training program.
“Hopefully, after two years, they're back in the workforce,” Ford said.
His bill would increase the cash supports families would receive. “They have not been updated since the mid-'90s,” Ford said. “As we all know, with the rate of inflation, costs have gone up.”
Ford's bill would incrementally raise the qualifications ceiling for families seeking to get into the program. Inflation has dropped that ceiling to 16 percent of the federal poverty level, or a net income of $288 per month for a family of three.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, Ford would index support levels to the cost-of-living adjustments declared each year by Social Security, “so that we don't have another situation like this” 20 years from now, he said.
Ford said the exact costs the state would incur haven't been worked out yet, but notes that much of the funding would continue to come from the federal grants.
A report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said program benefits in many states are too low to be effective. Action by Congress may help shore it up nationwide. But the center reports that since 2017, many states have raised or enacted plans to raise benefits.
Benefits in Illinois were scheduled to be increased last month, and Ohio's benefits are adjusted annually through the Social Security cost-of-living index, according to the center. But as inflation continues to erode buying power, Indiana's benefits and enrollment ceiling, already among the nation's lowest, will only fall further behind unless the legislature addresses the issue next session.
Ford's argument that this is also a workforce development issue ought to get attention from other lawmakers, and action.