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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as W.Va.'s New Clothing Vouchers Help Fill the Welfare Gap

W.Va.'s New Clothing Vouchers Help Fill the Welfare Gap

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Changes to West Virginia's welfare program have spurred a new initiative to help poor parents provide clothing for their children.

Republican Gov. Cecil H. Underwood announced this month that school clothing vouchers would be made available to all eligible children enrolled in the state's K-12 public and private schools.

 Gov. Cecil H. Underwood

West Virginia appears to be the first and only state to offer such assistance, though it did provide school clothing allowances to welfare recipients in the mid-1970s. With the federal government's effort to trim down welfare rolls, the state revamped its earlier program to help many parents who have become ineligible to receive such benefits.

Several of those families, while they may have found work, have taken minimum-wage jobs that cannot fully support a family, according to Ann Garcelon, a spokeswoman for the state health and human resources department, which runs the clothing-voucher program. And now many of the families who have been weaned off public assistance in West Virginia are finding it tough to make ends meet, according to state officials. "It is important for us to provide support to families," said Ms. Garcelon

To be considered for the aid, a family's income must be at or below the federal poverty level, meaning an annual income of $13,656 or less for a family of three.

The clothing-voucher program, which is financed through the federal Social Services Block Grant, Title XX, will cost the state an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million per year. The state predicts that 29,830 children will apply for the program this year.

A three-page application must be submitted to one of the state's local departments of health and human resources. Once they have been approved for the vouchers, families have until Dec. 31 to use them.

Each child in the program will receive a $100 voucher to buy clothing or sewing materials for clothing. The vouchers may not be used for hair accessories, jewelry, or school supplies.

Getting the Word Out

Although the deadline for applications is Sept. 30, there is some confusion about how many potential recipients are actually aware of the program.

Information about the new benefit apparently is not as widespread as state officials had hoped.

Janice Linger, a single mother of two living in Charleston, found out about it by accident. When she called the state human resources department to see if any help was available to ease her family situation, she learned that she could get clothing vouchers for her two children.

Ms. Linger is unable to work, she said, because her 7-year-old son is autistic and just recently moved back home with her after living for a while with a relative in another state. Because ofhis special needs, she said she needs to be available for him at all times.

The 32-year-old was taken off welfare because of the money her son receives from the federal Supplemental Security Income program. Those disability benefits are now counted as income under the new state and federal welfare rules. But the ssi money cannot be used for her 10-year-old daughter.

When Ms. Linger called the department to find out what she could do for her daughter, officials told her to come and fill out an application for the governor's new program. "This helps me out a lot ... [since] I'm not able to work," she said in a recent interview.

Ms. Garcelon says that parents were supposed to learn about the program through schools, the media, family-resource networks, and local health and human resources offices.

But Leslie Triggs, the president of the state's parent-teacher association, said she had never heard of the program. And officials at the state education department said they hadn't received a notice to distribute information to districts.

Erasing the Stigma

Two important aims of the program are to provide adequate clothing for children and to remove the stigma that children often face because of their financial circumstances, Ms. Garcelon said.

"Generally, this sounds like a good program that helps families," said Joyce Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America, based in Washington.

She said states typically think only about providing needy families with food or shelter, not clothing.

While the West Virginia program is a good first step, Ms. Johnson added, states could be doing more. "We hope that eventually states would move toward creating more jobs that would help families care for themselves without any assistance," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 16

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