Researchers concerned about drop in number of people receiving assistance from township trustees

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INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to the pandemic, most township trustees in the state’s largest county saw a decline in the number of applications and amount of assistance provided to families in need, according to a recent study.

The study, released by Indiana University’s Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy, found that despite state guidelines for trustee’s offices, interpretation of those guidelines can differ.

Lead researcher Kelsie Stringham-Marquis noted that her team was unable to answer its central question about how many applications are accepted or denied, due to a lack of available data.

“The fact that we don’t capture data that would allow anyone to answer that question to me seems like something that needs to get addressed,” Stringham-Marquis said.

Indiana’s unique form of township government offers residents across the state emergency assistance, in the form of payments for rent, utility bills, food and other needs. In order to qualify, residents must fill out a lengthy application and provide detailed financial information. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state did approve a shorter application in order to simplify the process.

“The trustee’s office is meant to be the last resource,” Lawrence Township Trustee Steve Talley said. “That’s why it’s called emergency assistance, you’ve exhausted all other ways of getting those things taken care of.”

Talley’s office saw the number of applications rise in 2020, but he and other trustees confirmed many residents do not complete their applications or even apply in the first place.

“Our staff continues to go out to houses of faith and community meetings, community groups and let people know that there is an option,” Talley said.

Data in the report showed the number of people receiving assistance in the county’s nine townships largely declined from 2011-2019.

Notably, researchers also found most townships spent 50% or less of available funds over that time and all nine townships spent less than half of budgets on direct assistance to residents.

Indiana’s State Board of Accounts provides detailed information to townships and frequently audits trustee budgets.

Talley encouraged all residents to apply in the event of a crisis, even if unsure whether you will qualify.

“During the interview process, there might be an instance where a person does qualify,” Talley said. “I’s a life saver, it really (is), I mean it saves a person’s life.”

Stringham-Marquis planned to continue to study, with a future phase focused on finding and interviewing residents who can share experiences about applying or ultimately deciding not to apply for help.

“Thinking through how township assistance can be one part of this system that helps really strengthen our social safety net for everybody, I think that’s really important,” Stringham-Marquis said.

Trustees offer emergency assistance across the state. To find your local township office, visit the link here.

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