Community groups seek larger role in fighting poverty

Community action groups often associated with getting heating assistance to people who need it want the Legislature to give them a broader mission that reflects their efforts in areas like food assistance and financial literacy.

Sen. Michael Moore and Rep. Tackey Chan urged their colleagues Tuesday to pass a bill to provide resources to the state’s 23 community action agencies and update state laws to reflect a holistic approach to services by creating a line item to administer flexible funding.

The bill, an Act to Address Inequality, Promote Opportunity and End Poverty, would also establish a trust fund to finance innovative, community-based programs and services, change language to reflect the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP) as the center for anti-poverty in the state, and form a council to review programs and recommend improvements.

At an advocacy event, Moore said the wealth of positive economic indicators can obscure the fact that many Massachusetts residents are living in poverty and require public assistance and services, and that the proposed bill would allow agencies to better help those residents.

“Hopefully, the changes in the definitions and the flexibility it would provide the administrations will really address the needs of our community members,” Moore said.

Chan said the legislation’s passage would improve the ability of community action agencies to respond to needs in a changing world. As the federal government “peels back” assistance, he said, “the state has to pick up the difference.”

Nancy Wagman, the Kids Count Director at the Massachusetts and Budget Policy Center, gave a presentation on MASSCAP’s report “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward.”

The May 2018 report found that anti-poverty policies have long-lasting impacts, and that Massachusetts’ public policies have effectively cut poverty in half in the state. However, federal funding cuts impact many state-provided services and recently approved federal tax cuts could put a large dent into funding for services.

“This can affect, will affect, might affect Massachusetts,” Wagman said. “One out of every four dollars in our state budget is a federal dollar.”

Officials from community action agencies also spoke about other MASSCAP priorities, including expanding access to the earned income tax credit and providing water and sewer rate relief for low-income households.