JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon reversed course Thursday, withdrawing a proposal to tighten food stamp eligibility that could have cost thousands their benefits.
By JASON HANCOCK
The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent
Since 2009, the state has qualified for a waiver allowing able-bodied adults without children to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as SNAP or food stamps — despite failing to meet certain federal work requirements.
The Star first reported earlier this month that Nixon’s administration planned to let the statewide waiver expire and instead only waive the work requirements in counties where the unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent. That was the standard before 2009.
Projections suggest Missouri probably would qualify for the statewide waiver — and the additional federal money that comes with it — through 2015. Forty-five states have received similar waivers since 2007.
When the news broke about Nixon’s proposal, it sparked an immediate backlash from his fellow Democrats. They argued there was no reason to turn away federal funds that could help Missourians struggling to make ends meet. They also worried the change would increase the burden on food banks and charities.
The governor told reporters earlier this month that the prospect of Congress cutting food stamp funds motivated his decision to let the waiver expire. But he said Thursday that recent events have caused him to change his mind.
“Ensuring state-administered food assistance programs operate as effectively and efficiently as possible is an important priority of my administration,” Nixon said in a statement. “With greater certainty about what the federal funding level for the food stamp program will be after last week’s budget agreement, we have made a determination that the appropriate course of action is to maintain the policy that is currently in place.”
Nixon’s sudden change of direction came as a surprise to many observers.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who was among the governor’s fiercest critics over the proposed change, said she was pleased with Nixon’s decision.
“I’m elated to know that he decided to do the right thing,” she said. “It’s a great victory for a lot of people who are living in poverty.”
Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, said that even though the state’s economy is on the upswing, thousand of Missourians are still struggling with the effects of the recession.
“The proposal to prematurely tighten food stamp eligibility was the wrong move at the wrong time, and the governor did the right thing today by reversing course,” she said.
Not everyone celebrated the governor’s change of heart.
Like many Republican state lawmakers, Sen. Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit initially praised Nixon’s decision to allow the statewide waiver to expire.
The waiver, which was included in the federal welfare reform legislation passed in 1996, was designed to give states flexibility in times of insufficient jobs and high unemployment. However, Kraus said it was never intended to be permanent.
“We all want to help those in need,” he said. “But at some point, a temporary program has to end. People portray this as free money from the federal government, but what we’re actually doing is borrowing and spending our grandchildren’s money.”
Missouri currently has about 58,000 able-bodied adults without dependents who receive food stamps. If Nixon’s proposed eligibility change had gone into effect, an unemployed adult would have had three months to find a job working at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a federally approved job training program. Otherwise, he or she would no longer receive food stamps.
Missouri had about 915,000 people receiving food stamps in August. That’s down from a peak of nearly 962,000 in December 2011.
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