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Thursday, August 18, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesGIVE THOUGHT TO TOBACCO SETTLEMENT MONEY

GIVE THOUGHT TO TOBACCO SETTLEMENT MONEY

Federal regulations dictate fiscal responsibility in welfare (now "TANF") clients, but where can they get exposure on a local level? Years ago an attorney on St. Croix filed a class action concerning exposure to a toxic chemical. Many persons who were part of the class were also welfare clients.
Settlement day led to "windfalls" of $5,000 to about $10,000 per class action member/ welfare client. Federal regulations require that clients who experience huge payouts, such as those million dollars-plus lottery winnings, pay back prior cash benefits received over the course of their lifetime. If the payout is smaller, "welfare" officials in the Department of Human Services are required to prorate how long that payout should carry the mother and her children and cut off all assistance until the supposed windfall runs out.
Unfortunately, most of the "welfare" clients saw the award from the class-action suit as a big Christmas present and spent the money immediately and quickly on new big-ticket items they did not previously have and that many of us take for granted. Others gave large gifts to special friends or took trips to Disney World or paid off old debts.
Their day of reckoning then came very quickly and sharply as they sought to get back on the "welfare rolls" since they were now broke. They were denied. They were told, once again, how many months or years (depending on the size of their previous welfare check) before they would be again eligible for help. They were shocked that there was no help for them or their children. Thereafter came calls from third parties and elected officials pleading their cases, but the law was clear and Human Services could not overturn its previous decision. Fortunately, they could still get food stamps.
I mention this as I compare our actions, laws or public opinions in the Virgin Islands on the expected tobacco class action settlement windfall. We seem determined to spend it all in one fell swoop. I suspect that the next time we plead with the feds (FEMA) to exchange our hurricanes Marilyn and Bertha debts for a grant they will wisely ask, "Whatever happened to that huge windfall from the tobacco settlement?"
When the terrible day comes that we are again hit with another hurricane and we seek to reduce or be exempted from our local match, they may pose the same question again. As the governor and delegate seek future financial assistance they may be faced with the same question.
What will we answer? We will only be able to sheepishly hang our heads and say we spent it on old debts or big-ticket items, or used it to live beyond our means.
Won't it be better to invest all or most of the $50 million or so we are said to be receiving? Could we then not use the large interest to permanently address some of our issues on an ongoing basis?
The more I read about how other jurisdictions are handling their settlement money, the more I cringe when I see the issues surfacing around our use; everyone wants it for operating costs or past debts. There is no vision to its use.
Many states I read about are placing theirs into a rainy day account or using it for one-time permanent improvements. Puerto Rico's governor is creating a Children's Fund to invest in their future, their youth. Not us, we are going to spend, spend and spend and forget about our future. Then we have the intestinal fortitude to look "welfare" clients dead in the eye and tell them to be fiscally responsible. We who act like the anticipated settlement is like a credit card, with no spending limits and for which someone else pays the monthly bills.
Whom should our welfare clients model themselves after in our community? Perhaps leading by example will come of age again.
Editor's note: Catherine Lockhart-Mills of St. Thomas, a former Human Services commissioner, holds a master's degree in social work. You can send comments to her on the articles she writes or topics you would like to see addressed at source@viaccess.net

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Federal regulations dictate fiscal responsibility in welfare (now "TANF") clients, but where can they get exposure on a local level? Years ago an attorney on St. Croix filed a class action concerning exposure to a toxic chemical. Many persons who were part of the class were also welfare clients.
Settlement day led to "windfalls" of $5,000 to about $10,000 per class action member/ welfare client. Federal regulations require that clients who experience huge payouts, such as those million dollars-plus lottery winnings, pay back prior cash benefits received over the course of their lifetime. If the payout is smaller, "welfare" officials in the Department of Human Services are required to prorate how long that payout should carry the mother and her children and cut off all assistance until the supposed windfall runs out.
Unfortunately, most of the "welfare" clients saw the award from the class-action suit as a big Christmas present and spent the money immediately and quickly on new big-ticket items they did not previously have and that many of us take for granted. Others gave large gifts to special friends or took trips to Disney World or paid off old debts.
Their day of reckoning then came very quickly and sharply as they sought to get back on the "welfare rolls" since they were now broke. They were denied. They were told, once again, how many months or years (depending on the size of their previous welfare check) before they would be again eligible for help. They were shocked that there was no help for them or their children. Thereafter came calls from third parties and elected officials pleading their cases, but the law was clear and Human Services could not overturn its previous decision. Fortunately, they could still get food stamps.
I mention this as I compare our actions, laws or public opinions in the Virgin Islands on the expected tobacco class action settlement windfall. We seem determined to spend it all in one fell swoop. I suspect that the next time we plead with the feds (FEMA) to exchange our hurricanes Marilyn and Bertha debts for a grant they will wisely ask, "Whatever happened to that huge windfall from the tobacco settlement?"
When the terrible day comes that we are again hit with another hurricane and we seek to reduce or be exempted from our local match, they may pose the same question again. As the governor and delegate seek future financial assistance they may be faced with the same question.
What will we answer? We will only be able to sheepishly hang our heads and say we spent it on old debts or big-ticket items, or used it to live beyond our means.
Won't it be better to invest all or most of the $50 million or so we are said to be receiving? Could we then not use the large interest to permanently address some of our issues on an ongoing basis?
The more I read about how other jurisdictions are handling their settlement money, the more I cringe when I see the issues surfacing around our use; everyone wants it for operating costs or past debts. There is no vision to its use.
Many states I read about are placing theirs into a rainy day account or using it for one-time permanent improvements. Puerto Rico's governor is creating a Children's Fund to invest in their future, their youth. Not us, we are going to spend, spend and spend and forget about our future. Then we have the intestinal fortitude to look "welfare" clients dead in the eye and tell them to be fiscally responsible. We who act like the anticipated settlement is like a credit card, with no spending limits and for which someone else pays the monthly bills.
Whom should our welfare clients model themselves after in our community? Perhaps leading by example will come of age again.
Editor's note: Catherine Lockhart-Mills of St. Thomas, a former Human Services commissioner, holds a master's degree in social work. You can send comments to her on the articles she writes or topics you would like to see addressed at source@viaccess.net