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Community Legal Services has a proven track record of helping low-income families access significant public benefits that help them feed, house and get medical care for their children. Regulations regarding the receipt of public benefits are often so complex and difficult that a lawyer is required to correctly interpret and apply them. While a social worker can help a family fill out an application for benefits, it usually takes an attorney to appeal an incorrectly denied application, or to interpret how to access the appropriate level of benefits. For instance, a family may appear to be over the income level for a benefit, but they may not have used the appropriate deductions that would allow them to qualify for it. Because of CLS’ in-depth knowledge and our ability to advocate with public agencies, CLS often obtains successful outcomes for our clients.
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
In the current recession, it is more important than ever to have access to legal advocates who can help a family acquire public benefits. When unemployed parents exhaust their unemployment compensation, or are ineligible for it, they should be able to turn to benefits like food stamps and TANF, which are likely to be their last-ditch safety net. However, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) statistics continue to show lower numbers of families receiving TANF benefits. From experience, CLS knows that it is often the case that substantial barriers, especially in work programs, can exist for families attempting to access TANF. Many families continue to be diverted by DPW from TANF to the “Work Support Component” (WSC), a pre-TANF program so inhospitable that many people do not make it to the TANF rolls. CLS has an excellent track record in helping parents overcome these barriers and access TANF benefits.
A frequent problem is when parents who have significant barriers to work programs, such as physical or mental disabilities, or who may be sheltering from domestic violence, are not able to meet stringent work requirements, resulting in a loss of TANF benefits for the entire family, including the children. CLS attorneys have the in-depth knowledge required to understand TANF regulations and policies and how to interpret them to the greatest benefit for a client. CLS attorneys can then successfully advocate with DPW caseworkers on the correct application of TANF policies for a client with significant barriers, which results in TANF benefits for the entire family.
CLS can also help a parent successfully apply for a program like KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success), through which a TANF recipient can attend community college, placing her on the road to self-sufficiency and long-term economic and social well-being for her children. KEYS is an excellent program for motivated parents, yet DPW workers often misinterpret regulations and create barriers to accessing the program. CLS can advise the parent the best way to qualify for KEYS and how to access child care subsidies which attending school. CLS also helps parents access the maximum level of childcare subsidies so that they can comply with strict TANF work programs.
SNAP (Food Stamps)
Food stamps, the traditional name for what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are also a vital income supplement during a recession. Food stamps are the most basic safety net, available to all regardless of family status or disability, unlike most other benefits programs. DPW recently undid years of CLS advocacy and re-instated the asset test, making it much more complicated for people in need to qualify for food stamps now that they must spend down most savings before applying. These additional complications have significantly increased the backlog of applications at the CAOs. CLS assists families in the unnecessarily complicated process of accessing food stamps by assuring that families receive the maximum benefit allowed.
CLS clients continue to experience long delays in accessing food stamps caused by the huge volume of applications. Many families are falling through the cracks in the overburdened system and applications are misinterpreted or lost. CLS attorneys explain the application process to families, including how qualifying for certain lesser-known conditions can result in far greater benefits. For instance, if a family is paying rent that includes payment for utilities, a letter from a landlord verifying utility cost can result in an extra $100 to $200 a month in food stamps, an amount that can prevent a family from experiencing food insecurity or hunger.
Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
CLS is also expert in assisting families to obtain CHIP health insurance for children or Medicaid for very low-income families. The regulations regarding CHIP and Medicaid are so complex that many families cannot access these benefits without the assistance of an attorney. For instance, Medicaid eligibility drops as a child grows older, leading some families to have an older child who is only CHIP-eligible, while younger children are Medicaid-eligible. Medicaid is a more comprehensive program and more appropriate for children with health issues. CLS will also assist hundreds of children who were unnecessarily thrown off the Medicaid rolls.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
CLS also helps children with disabilities access Supplemental Security Income (SSI) which allows them to receive the therapy and medical care they require to help them overcome or manage serious disabilities. The application process for SSI is complex, often requiring several appeals and months, more likely years, of work. CLS attorneys work with parents through every step of this extremely complicated and daunting process.
CLS advocates are experts on all publicly-funded benefits on which low-income families rely. CLS staff helps families understand these benefits and how they may best access them, and we advocate on their behalf with the appropriate administrative entities to ensure they receive the benefits for which they qualify. In support of this work, CLS also teaches the professional staff from community-based organizations about benefits available to families and how to provide all the information necessary for an application to access the appropriate type and amount of benefits. In doing so, CLS improves the efficiency with which these organizations serve families and children.
When families receive sufficient public benefits, instead of using all their time and energy in a frantic daily struggle to simply feed and house their children, they can provide the crucial support and stability their children require to flourish. While there are many services for low-income families in Philadelphia, there are few places where families can acquire free expert legal representation, the kind of representation that is far too often necessary to access the appropriate level of public benefits, or even any benefits at all. CLS is Philadelphia’s premier provider of these legal services, delivering expertise and ensuring that low-income families in Philadelphia will not go without the support that is legally theirs.