Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The good news that Gov. Kay Ivey didn’t share

  Gov. Kay Ivey did something good last year. And as far as I can tell, she never told anyone about it.

  As Alander Rocha recently reported, the governor’s office used a plan submitted to the federal government to increase the monthly benefit paid to recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) in Alabama from $215 a month to $344.

  To put this increase in perspective, Alabama had not raised that payment since 2002.

  “We believe this will benefit more Alabama children, parents as well as grandparents raising grandchildren,” Gina Maiola, a spokesperson for the governor, told Rocha.

  No argument here.

  TANF goes to people well past financial catastrophe. These are destitute households. And since a person can only receive benefits for five years under the program, adults tend go out quickly. Most benefits go to households where parents are not present.

  A single mother with two children who only makes $4,128 a year — 16% of the federal poverty line — earns too much money for TANF. (That, incidentally, works out to $344 a month.)

  I don’t want to go too far in my praise for the governor here. Several states have have raised their monthly benefits in recent years. Alabama’s monthly benefit remains well below the national median of $492 per month. (Which is only about 23% of the federal poverty level.)

  And in real terms, families on TANF today can buy less than they could 20 years ago. What was worth $215 in 2002 is worth about $375 today.

  So this isn’t the sweeping anti-poverty measure a state mired in poverty needs.

  But it’s a welcome step forward. In Alabama, never let the perfect be the enemy of the meh.

  Out of curiosity, I looked to see if Ivey or her spokespeople announced this benefit increase last year. The governor does not hesitate to share good news, or what she considers good news.

  In 2023, Ivey’s office proudly announced that a company would add 50 jobs in a metro area of over 100,000 people. Near the end of the year, the governor made a Labrador retriever an honorary state trooper. (Which, honestly, is kind of cute.)

  But there was nothing, as far as I can tell, announcing this attempt to help the poorest of the poor get through life. Nothing that I could find in press releases or general news coverage.

  No one said that Alabama, a state sitting on over $100 million in federal money aimed at alleviating the worst conditions people can face, was going to try to ease the suffering of children.

  At a minimum, it’s not something the governor has talked up.

  I’m not expecting Ivey to join the Catholic Worker movement. Or become a 1993-era Democrat.

  But it’s a reflection of how odd Alabama politics are that a move to feed thousands more children gets less play than a few dozen jobs opening up in an area where roughly 64,000 people work.

  I have some theories about why. The Alabama Legislature, for one, treats TANF with suspicion.

  Legislators tried for three years during the Trump administration to try to cut off TANF benefits after 36 months. They’ve tried to prevent TANF from going to people with criminal convictions. (You can leave a criminal past behind; you cannot stop being hungry.)

  Giving a few hundred dollars a month to a hungry family warrants microscopic oversight. Throwing cash at foreign factory owners with a leaf blower does not.

  In cold, tactical terms, it may not be politically wise to give a legislature hostile to public charity any sign that you’re improving a program aimed at assisting the poor.

  But there are plenty of other examples of the powerful in Alabama trying to downplay good news or even spin it as a bad thing.

  Over 120,000 more Alabamians signed up for health care coverage this year than in 2023. State officials haven’t said anything about that.

  Back in 2014, Alabama Power announced plans to shut down coal plants in the state. The move cut carbon emissions a little and sulfur pollution a lot, part of new federal rules aimed at slashing mercury levels.

  Instead of playing up all those benefits — or mentioning that natural gas was getting cheaper than coal — the utility highlighted the $1 billion cost of complying with the regulations over three years.

  (A cost that was less than one-fifth of their yearly revenues.)

  A power structure that thrives on a siege mentality; that feels the need to communicate that it’s unyielding; that views the needy as dangerous — that structure can’t see the value of doing positive things for Alabamians at the margins.

  This means we live in a state led by people who seem to think that using the government to make a person’s life a little easier is a sign of weakness.

  And that may be why we see so little of it.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register and The Anniston Star. A 2024 Pulitzer finalist for Commentary, his work has also won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector. Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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