Audit: Hurdles Slowed COVID-19 Grants To Poor Families In North Carolina
Some low-income families in North Carolina missed out on getting coronavirus relief grants last year because of administrative and qualifying hurdles required by the General Assembly, a state audit concluded on Monday.
The legislature in September approved using federal COVID-19 relief funds to give families one-time $335 payments. The “Extra Credit Grant” money was designed to assist with virtual schooling and child-care costs during the pandemic, but could be used for any purpose. Lawmakers tasked the Department of Revenue with managing the program.
More than 1.1 million payments had been sent by the department through December totaling about $375 million, according to State Auditor Beth Wood's office. They were sent automatically to families who were 2019 tax filers and reported having at least one child age 16 or under.
But parents or guardians who didn’t make enough money in 2019 to file a return were required to fill out an application to obtain payments. By the end of 2020, about 25,000 payments had been made to those who had applied, the performance audit said.
Wood's report found that other low-income families didn't receive payments because of the additional steps the Revenue Department had to complete within a matter of weeks to accept applications and award payments.
That work included creating application forms and processing requests, as well as conducting outreach efforts that “were inherently limited" and couldn't immediately reach more families, the audit said.
“As a result, the families most in need during the COVID-19 pandemic did not receive available economic support to assist with increased virtual learning and child care costs,” auditors wrote.
The department couldn't determine how many such families failed to receive the payments, but only 9,000 payments had been provided to families who filed by the original Oct. 15 deadline. The deadline was later extended to mid-December after litigation.
Wood's office recommended that the General Assembly consider directing that information from existing welfare programs such as Medicaid and food stamps be used in the future to identify needy families so automatic payments can be sent to them as well.
Revenue Secretary Ron Penny, in a written response attached to the audit, agreed with the findings and said he would pass along the recommendation to lawmakers. The legislature already has extended the grant application process further this year to May 31 to try to distribute unused funds. A measure approved by a Senate committee on Thursday would extend that deadline to July 1. The process for low-income families hasn't changed.
Penny wrote that his agency was performing more specific outreach this year to locate families that didn't apply during the short window provided in 2020.
Wood's office has been auditing whether billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds disbursed by the state have been properly allocated.