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January 28, 2021

Few applications received for state’s child care, remote learning assistance grant

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Following complaints about only a monthlong window to apply for a grant for families burdened with child care and remote learning costs, the deadline for N.C. Extra Credit Credit Grant program was extended to December to provide assistance to more than 200,000 eligible families.

The NC Extra Credit Grant was part of House Bill 1105, which was passed in September using the remaining $1.1 billion of federal CARES Act funds. The program provides $335 to eligible North Carolina families to help with remote learning and child care costs incurred due to the pandemic. But legal experts and advocates say the method in which the funds are distributed, the lack of awareness that it exists and internet availability may still pose barriers for many of the families who need the assistance most.

For families who filed a state income tax return in 2019, the grant is automatically received in whatever manner the family received their income tax return if they did receive one. But that leaves out some of the most vulnerable families who don’t earn enough income to file a state income tax return, some legal experts say. If a family didn’t file, they may be eligible if their income was less than $20,000 for a married couple, $15,000 for head of household and $10,000 for a single person; lived in North Carolina for all of 2019; and had at least one qualifying child aged 16 or younger in 2019.

Prior to the Oct. 15 deadline, Leila Pedersen, a policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center, said fewer than 15,000 applications were received online for the grant and fewer than 300 paper applications were submitted. If more efforts are not aimed at making families aware this resource is available, it could result in that assistance going to households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more.

On behalf of Legal Aid of North Carolina and Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, Robinson Bradshaw filed a complaint that claimed state lawmakers chose “a discriminatory, irrational and unconstitutional process for distributing these payments.” The litigation resulted in a court order on Nov. 5 that reopened and extended the application period to 2 p.m. on Dec. 7. The litigation also prompted the creation of 335forNC.com, which is now open and accepting applications for enrollment.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, agreed that the short window to apply for the grant was a concern.

“There was a legitimate concern that folks wouldn’t have the opportunity to even be aware of it,” Warren said, adding that allowing more time was the appropriate, prudent thing to do.

Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, also supported the bill. He said, in a lot of cases, parents are having to teach their own children, which isn’t easy.

“It isn’t that much money in the great scheme of things,” Ford said, “but it’s available for everybody.”

For parents making minimum wage, $335 amounts to more than what they make in a week.

Ford said he wants to make more of an effort to let North Carolinians know that assistance is available, which includes posting about it on social media, for example.

Warren said it was incumbent upon the government to do what it could to help alleviate the financial impact to families. And while it’s unfortunate it wasn’t a larger sum of money, shutting down schools necessitated some sort of financial assistance, he said.

Another barrier for families receiving this grant, Pedersen said, is the way the funds are distributed. Rather than using the existing cash assistance infrastructure, the funds are administered through the North Carolina Department of Revenue.

Warren said the focus was getting money out as quickly as possible, with a concentrated effort on helping people receive their unemployment benefits, leaving little time to work out any finer details such as the way it was distributed.

“No one really expected it to go on quite this long,” Warren said. “We just never got to that point in the details.”

Even so, many families who need the assistance may live in areas without broadband or internet service.

Warren said he encourages all families who face any barriers to receiving the resources they’re eligible for to reach out to their elected officials for guidance on what’s available and how they can receive financial assistance.

“That’s what you have elected officials for,” Warren said. “Any one of us, regardless of where they live, would be glad to help them get the grant.”

Moving forward, Pedersen suggests lawmakers consider allocating additional assistance for families who receive SNAP food or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, covering the co-pay for child care assistance programs or a one-time bonus for early child care educators. While prioritizing business recovery is important for the economy, Pedersen said cash assistance is an important public support measure that helps sustain the economic recovery for the long-term.

“It’s smarter to target cash assistance to families with the lowest income,” she said. “They now have more money in their pockets to go spend at businesses.”

Pedersen also disagrees with the provision that parents had to have lived in North Carolina in 2019 to qualify for the grant as it has no bearing on them needing help now. Additionally, it doesn’t account for the families who moved to the state this year but are still struggling amidst the pandemic all the same.

“There wasn’t a pandemic in 2019, but there’s a pandemic now,” she said.

The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy reports that, as of Nov. 22, at least 1,000 families have applied for the NC Extra Credit Grant through 335forNC.com. For every 3,000 applications received through 335forNC.com, it estimates $1 million will directly support children living in poverty.

According to U.S. Census data, the poverty rate in Rowan County is 16%, and the median household income is $48,667. Additionally, per capita income over the last 12 months in 2018 totaled $25,117.

“Extra Credit Grants are lifelines for families struggling during the pandemic,” said Adam Doerr, an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw. “A $335 check can cover the cost of an inexpensive computer or the internet service required for remote learning. It can also help cover childcare for a parent trying to interview for a job after being out of work.”

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