Low income can mean many things in the eyes of Arizona’s government.
A family of four can bring in more than $60,000 annually to be considered low income for the state’s recently expanded voucher program, allowing them to access more funds to attend private school.
For a corporate tax credit for private school tuition designed to help poor kids, low income equates to more than $80,000 annually for that same family.
But to be considered low income for various other state programs, like ones that allow the poor to buy food or basic necessities like toilet paper, the line is much lower, meaning fewer people qualify for help.
The definitions of low income effectively exclude people who may need help from some programs while providing a wider net for others. What’s more, these definitions drive debate on whether they reflect state government’s priorities by allowing more access to programs they prefer over others.
And the varying definitions were on full display this year, as the Arizona Legislature debated one bill to expand school vouchers that widely construed the idea of low income, while a measure aimed at upping the lifetime limit for cash assistance put more requirements in the way of the state’s poorest families.
Liz Schott, a fellow at progressive think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said it makes sense for various programs to have different cutoffs for eligibility because they have different objectives. Cash assistance benefits are supposed to help the neediest, so they have a low barrier for income, she said. Programs that provide child care or health care assistance have higher barriers because they’re costly for many families, even those who are working steadily, she said.
As people move up the economic ladder, they may no longer be eligible for one program but still need assistance in other areas with higher income limits, she said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 17 percent of Arizonans fell below the federal poverty level, or $24,600 annually for a family of four, in 2015.
Low income generally equates to under $50,000 for a family of four for a host of programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is cash assistance to needy families; the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program; KidsCare, public health insurance for children; child care subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is food stamps.
Arizona doesn’t have a philosophy behind all the differences in eligibility for various government programs, said Dana Naimark, director of advocacy group Children’s Action Alliance. Differences may stem from the time the program was implemented or politics or available funding, she said.
Naimark also said part of the issue of differing definitions evolves from how work has changed over time, and that wages haven’t kept up with inflation. While some programs were aimed at non-working folks initially, they now include people who are working but whose checks don’t cover their needs, she said.
Naimark highlighted the school tuition organization, or STO, corporate tax credit for low-income students.
The program gives money – in the form of scholarships for private schools raised through the tax credit – to kids whose families make roughly $80,000 annually (for a family of four).
The program “sticks out like a sore thumb” among assistance programs, and it was never intended or designed to actually help poor kids, Naimark said.
“To call something low income and have it be the level it is with STOs, I would call that subterfuge,” Naimark said.
The recent Empowerment Scholarship Account, or school voucher, expansion defined low-income students as those whose family income falls below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. While the expanded program is available to all students, regardless of income, only low-income students can get 100 percent of the money that would have been spent at a public school to attend a private school. Non-low-income students get 90 percent.
Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who sponsored the voucher expansion legislation, said the 250 percent number came from negotiations that allowed the bill to pass. The low-income designation was important to Gov. Doug Ducey and some lawmakers, so interested parties looked at different parts of statutes to arrive at 250 percent, she said.
“It seemed reasonable and strong public policy to give additional resources to families whose income was 250 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines. That means for a family of four they are making about $60,000. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible while still targeting the additional support,” Lesko said in an email.
But the idea of inclusivity when setting standards for what constitutes low income doesn’t extend to all programs.
The federal government sets the income limits for some assistance programs, like SNAP, while others allow the states to have flexibility in administering the program, including determining eligibility.
For instance, in order to qualify for Arizona’s TANF program a household’s countable income must be less than $278 for a family of three, though there are wide variations in how income is calculated based on family size, household composition and expenses.
The state has repeatedly lowered the time limit for TANF, at one point becoming the strictest in the nation, allowing only 12 months of cash assistance benefits over a person’s lifetime.
This year, Ducey pushed for restoration of the TANF time limit to 24 months, but the bill contained several strings that Democrats said made things even harder for poor people.
Meanwhile, another policy pushed by Ducey will let people who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level get free professional licenses, allowing them to work as nurses or massage therapists or architects, among others.
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said there’s not really a consideration of personal or political preferences for certain programs over others, like ESAs over food stamps, when setting a guideline for income. Ducey is focused on giving people a “hand-up,” not a handout in order to help them out of poverty, Ptak said.
Ptak said there’s no universal metric or definition of low income. The federal poverty level, Ptak said, is a commonly used standard, but many people above that level still need assistance.
For ESAs in particular, the low-income definition still allowed the state to be fiscally conservative and doesn’t cost the general fund money, Ptak said.
“The bottom line is that we want to help as many people as possible who need it within our budget constraints,” Ptak said.
But, according to Sam Richard, executive director of the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, which advocates for programs that help the poor, the varying standards certainly depict policy priorities and preferences.
“This is a clear choice between winners and losers that policymakers are making,” Richard said. “They want to make it easier for folks to be able to send their kids to alternatives to their neighborhood public school and make it difficult for people to access programs like SNAP and AHCCCS.”
The policy ideas driving vouchers and STOs also relate to the ballot box, Richard said, where people who support private and charter schools tend to vote more than those who need help from social programs.
The Legislature and governor’s support for school choice measures and tax cuts for corporations tend to favor “white, wealthy, suburban families,” and setting a higher level for low-income definitions for those programs helps boost participation in those programs, Richard said.
“We’re making an explicit choice that those are the people we want to support rather than communities on the periphery of society,” Richard said.
Note: This story previously used an outdated income guideline for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. A household’s countable income must be less than $278 for a family of three to qualify.