Catholic Charities Could be Ideal Partner to Utilize State’s Surplus Funds (Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Posted 11/01/2019

When Catholic Charities of Tennessee Executive Director Judy Orr learned that the state of Tennessee has a surplus of $732 million in unused federal block grant money earmarked for the working poor, that set her mind immediately in motion.

"To understand that there's this kind of reserve accumulated in our own state ... the amount of work we could do with that is almost unfathomable," she said. "We have a $10 million budget, but what if we had 10 times that?"

And that would still be only a fraction of the money that the state has on hand through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

The Tennessean newspaper first reported on the reserve of funds Oct. 22 after the Beacon Center of Tennessee drew attention to the surplus in its newly released "Poverty to Prosperity" report.

If Catholic Charities of Tennessee is able to tap into some of those funds, Orr said, it could provide a "smorgasboard of opportunity" to expand services to people in need.

Two of Catholic Charities' programs that would likely fit the criteria to receive TANF funds include the Family Empowerment Program, which assists families at imminent risk for homelessness, and the Workforce Development Program, which provides job training to work in the hospitality, culinary, and textile industries.

When John Michael Ford, director of outcomes and contract management for Catholic Charities, read the guidelines for how the money could be used, he thought, "It reads like a list of what Catholic Charities does."

"What a great opportunity to seize upon to better serve our clients," Ford said.

The federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency.

The four purposes of the TANF program, as outlined by the federal government, are to:

• Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives.

• End the dependence of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.

• Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

• Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Right now, it's not clear when or how the state plans to disburse the money, or exactly what the process would be.

Gov. Bill Lee recently stated that he is comfortable with the state holding onto the money until there is a downturn in the economy.

Tennessee's Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes addressed reporters' questions about the surplus Oct. 28 and indicated that the state would be open to partnering with nonprofit organizations such as United Way to serve more people in need.

Catholic Charities already receives some funding from the Department of Human Services and United Way. "We've proven to be good stewards of those funding dollars," Orr said.

"We're tried and true," Orr added, noting the successful 57-year history of Catholic Charities in Tennessee, which has adapted to changes over the years to meet current needs. Outside of the government, Catholic Charities is the largest provider of community services in Nashville and the Midstate.

With such a broad scope of services - offering free hot meals to the community three days a week, counseling to individuals and families, assisting refugees as they resettle in a new country, conducting home studies for adoptive families, working to prevent family homelessness, overseeing job training programs - Catholic Charities doesn't have a niche focus like many other local non-profits.

"We want to let the state know we're doing a lot of these things and we have the capacity to do more," said Ford. "Other organizations may have to staff up, train up, in a way that Catholic Charities won't have to."

With its sister organizations Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, and with the infrastructure of the parishes already in place, Catholic Charities has the ability to quickly expand services in every corner of the state.

An infusion of funding through TANF could allow Catholic Charities to replicate its successful programs, that are mostly concentrated in urban areas, and serve more people in outlying, underserved rural counties. For these reasons, "we would be a good investment," of TANF dollars, Ford said.

Orr is looking forward to an upcoming meeting with the state's director of faith based and community initiatives, where she'll continue to make the case that Catholic Charities is an ideal fit to effectively utilize the state's TANF dollars.

If Catholic Charities were to receive some of the money, "we could amplify the impact," of programs that serve needy families every day, Orr said.

PHOTO CREDITS: Top image from Catholic Charities of TN Archives; Middle and bottom images courtesy Tennessee Register.

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