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Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters.

Louisiana's federally-funded cash assistance programs, with payments near the bottom nationally, will be doubled starting Saturday after remaining stagnant for more than two decades, state officials said.

"We hope this increase in benefit amounts will attract more people and encourage them to apply," Marketa Garner Walters, secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, said in a statement.

The two assistance programs in line for monthly hikes are part of a 1996 federal program called Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, or TANF.

The money is supposed to help families meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.

Louisiana has collected $1.6 billion through the program in the past 10 years, or about $163 million per year.

The aid was the subject of a 56-page audit issued Monday by Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack, a report that stemmed from a resolution approved earlier year this year by Legislature.

Nearly 1 in 4 state residents live in poverty, including 25% of grandparents who are responsible for the care of one or more of their grandchildren.

However, the state ranks 48th in the nation for the amount of cash assistance offered needy families, according to the audit.

Louisiana offers cash for four out of every 100 families living in poverty versus an average of 23 out of 100 nationally.

One of the programs, called the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program, provides cash for 1,484 needy households with children.

The current rate is $240 per month for a single parent family of three with no income.

It will rise to $484 -- the current U. S. average.

The other one in line for a boost is called the Kinship Care Subsidy Program, which aids caregivers in 1,338 households who have legal guardianship of minor relatives.

That benefit will increase next month from $222 to $450 per eligible child.

The hike will be financed with some of the state's $53 million in surplus TANF funds, auditors said.

Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, praised DCFS for boosting the monthly payments, an issue that Moller's group called attention to in 2016.

However, Moller said Tuesday the federal block grants that finance the assistance have not kept pace with inflation.

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"In real terms the state has to make do with less every single year," he said.

Inflation has risen by 61% since the assistance was last changed in 2000, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.

That means what cost $1 more than two decades ago costs $1.61 today.

After a flood of calls from people wanting to apply for disaster-related food stamps, the federal government agreed to extend the application …

"This is especially important at a time when families are facing price increases due to inflation and unprecedented need caused by the pandemic," said Shavana Howard, assistant secretary for the state's Division of Family Support.

"It was imperative that these benefit amounts be increased to meet their needs," Howard said.

Work eligible recipients of the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program are supposed to take part in education, on-the-job training, job readiness or work hours.

The audit said Louisiana had the lowest rate of work participation in the nation in 2020 -- 3.5%.

In their response, DCFS officials said changes will allow that work rate to rise by 3% this year and 2%-5% annually over the next five years.

Waguespack's review said that, while states enjoy wide latitude on how to use TANF funds, Louisiana's approach is different from most.

Nearly 30% of the annual federal allocation helps fund pre-school classes for four-year-olds living in low-income families, called LA4.

Child welfare services account for another 25% of the federal aid.

Louisiana spends 8% on cash assistance compared to 21% nationally.

Aside from providing assistance to needy families TANF is aimed at ending dependence on government benefits, preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies  and encouraging the formation of two-parent families.

Louisiana ranked 2nd in the nation for out-of-wedlock pregnancies between 2014 and 2019, according to the audit and figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state also ranked 3rd nationally for its teen birth rate in 2019.

To apply for cash assistance visit http://www.dcfs.la.gov/cash-assistance.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.