Needs Assessment Unit costs jump, led by school lunches

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Although the number of people being helped by the Needs Assessment Unit has not changed significantly, overall costs of the support it provides increased by 26% in 2018. Even more notable is the money spent on school lunch assistance, which more than doubled over the previous year, jumping 134%.

Officials at the Needs Assessment Unit said a change in the way families had to apply for school lunch assistance may account for the large increase in expenditures.

An email from the unit said, “In the 2016‑2017 fiscal year, eligible children were approved to receive assistance with school lunches for one academic term.”

After that, families were required to reapply.

“After evaluation,” the unit said, “the NAU found that in most cases families were finding it challenging to undertake the necessary follow-up.”

So in 2018, the qualification period was changed to incorporate the entire school year, “to improve the client experience and, most importantly, avoid children going without school lunches”, officials said.

The number of students helped, however, only changed by a fraction during the two periods, the data shows, actually dropping from 328 to 325.

The original budgeted amount for school lunches in 2018 was $124,000. That number was later revised to $264,000. The actual cost for the year was $251,733. That compares to $161,500 spent in fiscal year 2016‑2017, but that figure is for an 18‑month period. Adjusting that amount to a 12‑month average shows a year-to-year increase of $144,026, or 134%.

A big jump was also seen in preschool assistance.

The number of children assisted rose from 62 in 2016‑2017 to 70 in 2018. But the cost of that support went up 102%, from an adjusted $59,873 to $120,686.

Again, officials said this might be due to changes made in the application procedure, which were similar to the changes in school lunch applications.

“This increase is mainly due to families not presenting in time to request an extension of services and subsequently, the NAU’s decision to approve this particular service for a longer period of time in the 2018 fiscal year.”

In terms of family assistance, officials said the increased cost of living in Cayman was largely responsible for the rise in expenditures. Poor relief payments went from $550 per month in 2016‑2017 to $650 per month in 2018, an 18% rise.

However, the actual expenditure on payments rose 28%, while the number of people receiving the assistance ticked up just 5%.

That was one of the few increases seen in the number of people helped. The number of families receiving poor relief vouchers and rental assistance both dropped slightly. Overall the total number of families receiving any type of assistance rose just 0.5%.

Unit officials said the increases reflect the economic realities of Cayman.

“The increasing cost of living in the Cayman Islands has caused families to rely on more services from the NAU and for longer periods of time,” they said. “Notably, in accordance with recent societal trends, rent, utilities and food are the three areas where the NAU has seen the largest increase in cost over the years.”