Raleigh, N.C. — More needy families in North Carolina will begin feeling the pinch of the shutdown Monday, as the state suspends its Work First program, a federally funded program also known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).
State Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Henry confirmed that, as of Monday, DHHS has instructed county offices that "no new approved applications for Work First should be processed because of the unavailability of federal funds."
The short-term assistance program is designed to help families stay off welfare by supplying limited cash benefits, child care, food stamps and Medicaid for up to three months.
In September, the cash assistance payments for Work First totaled almost $4.8 million. More than 20,700 people were served by the program statewide last month, including 13,761 children.
North Carolina is the only state in the country shuttering its program.
Henry said the freeze includes applications pending as of Monday, as well as re-certifications for November. While most program beneficiaries have already received their October checks, she said," If you are on Work First now, you should not expect to get a check in November if the federal shutdown continues."
People can continue to apply for TANF benefits, Henry stressed, adding that most counties have enough administrative money left to keep the doors open.
"We’re working with our federal dollars," Henry said. "We just we don’t have the funds for the Work First."
All other states and the District of Columbia have opted to continue their programs so far, using state funds and anticipating federal reimbursement.
A Sept. 30 letter from the federal Office for Family Assistance urges states to keep TANF open, saying any needed expenditures will be paid back once the shutdown has ended.
"Allowable expenditures jurisdictions make between October 1, 2013, and the date that an extension is enacted would be eligible for reimbursement with federal TANF or CCDF (Child Care and Development Fund) funds made available under an extension, unless Congress specifies otherwise," the letter from Acting Assistant Secretary George Shelton reads in part..
"Once there is legislation extending the funding, and provided Congress does not specify otherwise, a TANF expenditure could qualify either for federal reimbursement or to count as a maintenance-of-effort expenditure, and the state, DC, and territory will be permitted to choose whether to receive reimbursement or count the expenditure toward satisfying its maintenance-of-effort requirement," the letter says.
Henry said the letter was not a sufficient guarantee of repayment.
"From our perspective, the offer that was made about possible reimbursement was not a definitive enough commitment about reimbursement for us to count on that," Henry said.
She couldn't comment on why other states viewed it differently.
Democratic Congressmen David Price, G.K. Butterfield and Mel Watt sent Gov. Pat McCrory a letter Tuesday urging him to continue operating TANF during the shutdown, noting that the reimbursement guarantee was "good enough for 49 other states."
Alexandra Sirota, executive director of the left-leaning North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, says it would be extremely unlikely for members of Congress to vote not to pay their states back once the impasse is over.
Sirota compared the decision to stop the program to last week's decision to stop offering WIC benefits. North Carolina was the only state to halt issuing food vouchers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program. That decision was abruptly reversed Thursday evening after media inquiries about it.
"North Carolina is the only state that’s doing this," Sirota said. "This isn’t a necessary course of action."
Critics of the decision say the state's $650 million "rainy-day fund" could easily cover a short-term loan to Work First.
Earlier in October, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she would halt TANF benefits in her state but quickly reversed her decision after a public outcry.