In the Governor’s Year of the Child, a Call for Alabama Arise

In the Governor’s Year of the Child, a Call for Alabama Arise

By Carolynne B. Scott

Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 7-9

Governor Guy Hunt has proclaimed 1989 to be the Year of the Child in Alabama. For the poor child whose mother receives Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), this is hardly cause to celebrate.

How much can a welfare mother buy with $118 per month for a family of three–the average size of a family receiving ADC benefits? Add food stamps and Medicaid to that, and the mother’s total benefits rise to $438 per month. Very likely, the $118 is the only cash that comes in.

Medicaid benefits, which help considerably in a health crisis, may force the mother to remain on the dole, for if she happens to find odd jobs, and if those jobs push her annual income over $1,428, then she will not qualify for Medicaid at all.

Although federal authorization for the ADC program is included in the Social Security Act, ADC benefit levels are left to the individual states, and Alabama in this Year of the Child provides the least cash assistance in the nation.

The ADC cash and food stamps’ value together equal less than half the federal poverty level for income ($9,044 for a family of three) . The base payment in Alabama has not increased since 1976, and then only 0.5 percent. Of some 45,000 individuals on ADC benefits in Alabama, 31,500 are children. Two-parent families do not qualify unless one parent is handicapped.

While still inadequate, ADC benefits are somewhat better in Georgia where a three-person family can receive $263 per month. In Florida, the allotment is $264, and in Kentucky, $197. The Southeastern average is $193. At the national level, the median benefit for a family of three in 1987 was $359.

Vexations of the Poor

Kay Samples, a middle-aged mother of four (and a single parent for seventeen years), explained some of the vexations surrounding assistance for the poor at a hearing in Gadsden recently. The hearing was mandated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Economy and was one of five set up by the Peace and Justice Office of the Birmingham diocese. “I wanted to go to school, to technical college,” Mrs. Samples recalled, “but if I got scholarship money, I lost my Medicaid. If I worked, I lost Medicaid. A lot of us that have special children need help to get a job and be able to keep the children on Medicaid.” Mrs. Samples has a chronically ill daughter.

Still, Mrs. Samples is grateful for the public housing assistance she did receive. She recalled that “if you live in a HUD project and your utilities get cut off, you can’t keep the apartment.”

“I drew $118 per month, and when I paid my utilities I didn’t have anything left. I had to pay my gas bill one month and my power the next.”

In 1986, Mrs. Samples married a retired military man who pulled her out of poverty, then died of lung cancer within one year. His Social Security and military benefits now support her and two daughters still living at home, and she works at the Baptist Mission Association in Gadsden to help others.

Most Benefits Less Than Two Years

Mrs. Samples received ADC benefits for seven years, but most families do not stay on the program that long. Nationally, only 25 percent of ADC recipients stay longer than two years.

For utility assistance, as Mrs. Samples pointed out, the mother must turn to churches and charities. Alabama Power cuts off some 90,000 customers per year and Alabama Gas some 20,000, according to Angie Wright, of Greater Birmingham Ministries. GBM has estimated that 50 to 80 percent of its direct assistance budget goes for help with utilities. Yet many poor families lose their heat and lights, or, worse yet, sell their food stamps to pay the bills.

The situation has become even more critical since the latest federal budget reduced federal aid in the form of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by 9.6 percent. Children of low-income families suffer an increasing risk to health and life due to lack of electricity or gas.

With the wealthiest fifth of Americans controlling 43.5 percent of the income and the poorest fifth only 4.6 percent, the situation for the poor grows steadily worse. As Sister Mary Roy, who operates the Anniston Interfaith Center of Concern (a welfare agency providing emergency food, clothing and cash assistance) pointed out at the Gadsden hearing: “Little by little, the gap between the

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haves and the have-nots is widening. The backbone of society has been the middle class, but now, many of them are needing help, too.”

Enter Alabama Arise–a coalition of churches, social services providers, and legal and political groups as diverse racially, politically, and ideologically as the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters, Mobile Catholic Social Services and the Loveman’s Village Tenants’ Council in Birmingham.

The concept of a statewide network of advocates for the poor was spearheaded by Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Auburn-based Alabama Coalition Against Hunger. “We realized individually that we did not have the power to make an impact on the legislature,” says Sandra Lawler, church and community organizer for GBM.

“We introduced the idea and worked hard by telephone and through letters. Very quickly, we got a number of interested groups. They decided there would be one representative from each organization and that we’d come together for an all-day meeting to set priorities.” That was in June of 1988. Now there are fifty-one organizations with a well-tuned social conscience who pay $100 to $500 to support Alabama Arise’s efforts.

Alabama Arise has retained Jim Littleton as its legislative coordinator in Montgomery. A soft-spoken black businessman, Littleton worked as an aide to former Alabama governor Fob James during his administration and has lobbied for Alabama AM University and “the Electric Cities,” towns which have their own electric companies.

At a recent meeting of the Direct Services Network, a coalition of some sixty organizations addressing issues affecting the poor, Angie Wright of GBM and Lucille White of Partners in Advocacy gave Alabama Arise’s strategy; “Activate the phone tree at night, and we can have 4,000 calls into the Legislature by the next morning.”

Through these calls, as well as personal visits with legislators and Littleton’s efforts, Alabama Arise hopes to ensure utility service for the poor fund adequate maternal and health care, raise ADC benefits, and initiate tax reform.

“We don’t expect to have all this happen in one session,” says Angie Wright, “but it is realistic to think we will make some of our goals.”

By mid-April, $4 million, which would provide a 15 to 20 percent increase in monthly ADC benefits had passed both the Alabama House and Senate to become a conditional appropriation. “That means that if the state takes in more than it has budgeted, Governor Hunt will decide what to do with it,” Ms. Wright said. “Last year, he was in favor of an increase in benefits,” she added. “It will be a priority of Alabama Arise to lobby him this summer.”

A Political Power Play

Alabama Arise’s other trump–a $0.25 surcharge on residential power bills and a 0.4 percent charge on businesses–came up as House Bill 761 before the House Ways and Means Committee on April 19. Wright, Public Service Commissioner Charlie Martin and the Rev. Joe Elmore of Vestavia Hills Methodist Church testified on behalf of the bill.

Wright pointed out that the bill would provide between $10-$13 million for assistance, in effect doubling the LIHEAP monies now available.

Commissioner Martin added that one of eight Americans lives below the poverty level. “While the federal government is decreasing LIHEAP monies, we’re increasing the numbers who are cold.”

Representatives of Alabama Power Company, Rural Electric Cooperative, and the City of Dothan testified against the bill.

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Oscar Walker, Alabama Power’s manager of rates and regulatory matters, pointed out that under LIHEAP only ercent goes for electricity while 35 percent goes for liquid petroleum gas, and 30 percent for natural gas. (In other words, electric companies do not benefit as much as other suppliers from those LIHEAP funds which the surcharge would swell.)

He said that only 9 percent of Power Company customers now participate in Project Share, a voluntary program through which they contribute a dollar at each billing to help the poor with utilities. Walker added that it is hard to get large industrial companies to locate in Alabama, and the 0.4 percent tax might discourage them further.

He also objected to the fact that TVA industrial customers along the Alabama/Tennessee line would not be taxed under this bill. Commissioner Martin explained that Alabama cannot tax a federal entity, but that municipal utility customers of TVA would be taxed.

House committee members asked numerous questions indicating a real interest in the bill and the distribution of funds through the Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

But at the end of the session, Rep. Bill Fuller of LaFayette, one of four co-sponsors of B 761, introduced a substitute bill that would make the tax voluntary, reduce it to ten cents for residential customers and 0.2 percent for businesses.

Rep. John Buskey, Montgomery, who had introduced the bill, said this would “do irreparable harm to the program,” and moved to table the substitute. By voice vote, the committee concurred. Rep. Taylor Harper, Grand Bay, committee chairman, heard it differently, however. He said the “no’s” carried and promptly put the substitute to a vote. It passed.

Alabama Arise proponents left the chamber in shock.

Moments later, lobbyist Littleton was vowing he’d get the original bill introduced through the Senate. “We”ll keep working,” Angie Wright added.

If each affiliate organization of Alabama Arise develops a telephone committee of five to ten persons, who, in turn, contact five to ten others, 4,000 calls to legislators might indeed be made the night before the key vote.

Calling for Clout

Will it work? This was the tactic Partners in Advocacy used to bring about rudimentary changes in perinatal health care for low-income mothers. “Four years ago, we were in the same place Alabama Arise is,” Lucille White told a DSN meeting recently, referring to her group’s effort to win funding for pre-natal and delivery care.

At that time, Alabama had the worst infant mortality rate in the country. Less than 20 percent of pregnant women without doctors were poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Even if they could qualify, benefits to physicians and hospitals were the lowest in the nation. Wilcox County had an infant mortality rate of 34.2 deaths per thousand births, three times the national average and as high as in many Third World countries.

“A woman had to show up at the hospital already in delivery to be admitted,” White added. Now, besides its other goals, Alabama Arise is joining in the Partners’ concerns by trying to get the Medicaid eligibility income ceiling raised and to let older children up to three be covered also.

Whatever the long and arduous outcome of future legislative efforts, the children of Alabama at least have found a voice.

Carolynne Scott teaches fiction writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and writes for Catholic Charities.