November 24, 2004
MASSACHUSETTS ASSISTANCE TO REFUGEES
By: Robin K. Cohen, Principal Analyst
You asked (1) what assistance Massachusetts provides to its refugees, above and beyond cash assistance funded through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant and Medicaid and (2) how it compares to Connecticut.
Massachusetts' refugee assistance system differs from Connecticut's in a number of ways. First, Massachusetts' Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI) is a separate division in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. It is a dedicated state unit responsible for overseeing the state's refugee resettlement and immigrant programs.
Connecticut does not have such a public infrastructure; here, five designated volunteer resettlement agencies (volags) provide this assistance. The largest one is Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services in Hartford. The Department of Social Services (DSS), which coordinates refugee services for the state, administers the Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance (RCA and RMA) programs and monitors how the volags spend other federal resettlement funds it passes through to them. But the volags provide most of the assistance and advocacy for the refugees they serve.
New refugees in both states can receive cash assistance (e.g., TANF-funded cash assistance) and Reception and Placement (R & P) funds during their first 30 days in the state (R & P funds come from the U.S. State Department, are available to every new refugee for their first 30 days in the U.S., and are meant to cover basic needs, such as food and shelter). In Massachusetts, the R & P funds are not counted towards eligibility for the other programs. But Connecticut deducts the R & P funds from any other cash assistance that might be available to the refugee.
There is also a state commitment of funds to support Massachusetts refugees' employment services. The state diverts $200,000 of its TANF employment funds from the state's welfare office to the ORI, which in turn goes to the volags, which are better equipped to tailor employment-related services to TANF-eligible refugees and non-Spanish speaking immigrants. In Connecticut, the volags are able to get federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funds to offer more tailored employment services, including the necessary interpreters, but this is far more limited. The volags do not get any TANF funds for this purpose.
Finally, Massachusetts takes advantage of the “Wilson-Fish” provision in the federal immigration law that allows it to contract with the volags to promote more integrated and innovative approaches to providing cash, medical, employment, and social services to ensure early employment of refugees. Connecticut does not use this provision.
The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), which we described in a recent OLR report (2004-R-0755), provides additional support through its advocacy efforts. Connecticut does not have a comparable organization.
Cash and Medical Assistance
When a refugee first arrives in the U.S., he is eligible for 30 days of U.S. Department of State (DOS)-funded basic needs support through the Reception and Placement (R & P) program. R & P money flows directly from the U.S. DOS to the volags. In addition, refugees can get eight months of cash assistance (RCA) and medical assistance (RMA)unless the state determines that he is eligible for TANF-funded cash, Medicaid, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), in which case he gets these latter benefits instead. (Most refugee families with children qualify for non-refugee-specific benefits, such as TANF-funded cash and Medicaid.) Massachusetts does not count the income from the R & P towards the family's eligibility for the federal assistance programs, and it can receive both benefits concurrently. In Connecticut, R & P assistance is counted in determining eligibility for other federal assistance.
The federal Matching Grant is another source of cash assistance. It too is funded through the federal ORR. It is a public-private partnership in which a volag and the ORR share refugee resettlement costs. This assistance can be provided for up to four months from the date of entry. A refugee receiving Matching Grant assistance would not qualify for RCA or the Early Employment Incentive (see below) but he could get RMA if he is ineligible for Medicaid. Emel Hadzipasic, director of Massachusetts' ORI's Family Independence Unit, indicated that the cash assistance from this program is generally better than RCA because the volags are in a better financial situation to supplement the federal funds. Catholic Charities is a Matching Grant recipient in Connecticut.
Massachusetts is one of 11 states that runs its refugee assistance program through a Wilson-Fish project. (Wilson-Fish was a 1985 amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act that authorized public and private nonprofit agencies to develop new approaches to provide cash and medical assistance, social services, and case management to refugees.) Federal ORR funds pay for all project activities. Wilson-Fish's primary goal is to increase refugees' prospects for finding work early and becoming self sufficient, while reducing their dependence on welfare. According to Hadzipasic, Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states using a state agency to operate its Wilson-Fish program.
In addition to encompassing the RCA and RMA programs, Massachusetts' Wilson-Fish program offers the Early Employment Incentive, which is a bonus paid to those refugees who accept employment within four months from becoming employable. If a refugee starts work within two months, he qualifies for a $500 cash bonus; the bonus drops to $400 and $300 for three-month and four-month job starts, respectively. Half the incentive is paid when the refugee starts working and the other half after he has been on the job for 90 days. Federal RCA funds pay for the incentive.
The program also offers employment services. Here, the volags concentrate on getting employment-related services to refugees to prepare them for work as early as possible. But it also strives to prepare them for higher-paying jobs and emphasizes post-placement services to
ensure what Hadzipasic called “durable” self sufficiency. Refugees can participate in this program for the lesser of five years or when their income reaches 450% of the federal poverty level.
Two Massachusetts counties (Suffolk and Hampden) qualify for Targeted Assistance Grants. These federal formula grants, available to counties that have high numbers of refugee arrivals, help pay for a variety of vocational skills training and on-the-job training, with vocational English language training matched to the specific job training. According to Sister Dorothy Strelchun of Catholic Charities, DSS has helped Connecticut qualify for TAGs.
Other employment related assistance includes re-certification training, which enables refugees to obtain recertification in an area in which they were previously certified before they came to the U.S. The ORR also funds this program.
Case management services are another critical component of the resettlement system. Bicultural and bilingual case managers at the volags help refugees navigate the services they need, including housing assistance.
Hadzipasic said that one of the primary reasons the state chose Wilson-Fish was a desire to ensure a “seamless” continuum of services for refugees, starting with the R & P. She also noted that the case managers, with whom refugees work from entry into the U.S., stay with the refugees as they move from assistance to employment.