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Welfare, child support cuts hit hard

Mother of three gets $300 less per month, says she can’t escape ‘poverty hole’

It was hard last year for a Spokane mother of three trying to work her way off welfare. It’s much worse now.

“I was trying to make the right steps, but now I’m going to have to back step,” said Jenniffer Cooke, 41, who receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families while she works to lift her family out of poverty.

State budget cuts, including the suspension of child-support payments, have had a severe effect on her chances.

Born into a middle-class California family, Cooke found herself and her children destitute and homeless in Spokane three years ago as a result of the breakup of her marriage, which ended in divorce.

She worked “one dead-end job after another” until November, when she joined AmeriCorps, working as a volunteer coordinator for Cancer Patient Care, a nonprofit that serves the social needs of patients.

Cooke’s plan was to escape poverty by learning job skills with the national service agency, which helps her pay off student loans and provides her a small stipend.

Although the court has ordered her former husband to pay Cooke $320 a month in child support, the payments are collected by the state to help reimburse the cost of payments and services she receives through a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant.

Beginning October 2008, federal and state law allowed the state Division of Child Support to pay custodial parents of minor children a portion of their child support. These payments, known as “pass-throughs,” are left to the discretion of each state. Idaho has opted not to pass through any portion of child support to welfare recipients.

In Washington, families with one child typically received a $100-a-month pass-through, and families with more than one child received $200 a month.

On May 1, those payments stopped for about 12,372 poor Washington families with 23,450 children as a result of budget-reduction measures taken by the state Legislature. Suspension of the child-support pass-through was expected to save the state $37.6 million over two years.

As of the first of the year, the state also cut welfare checks by 15 percent.

Cooke’s family lost its $200 pass-through while its TANF grant was cut from $662 to $562 a month.

Now Cooke fears she will have to find another low-wage job and quit AmeriCorps, where she had hoped to gain experience that would improve her future employment prospects.

“I’m not a big spender, but I’m barely making it,” said Cooke, who is having a hard time buying shoes for her children, ages 9, 7, and 4. “No matter what I do I can’t get out of the poverty hole.”