As Republican lawmakers push bills to tighten access to the state’s welfare programs, their critics worry one group of Missourians could be hurt the most: low-income children.
A handful of bills would put greater restrictions on people receiving aid through federal welfare programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, or food stamps.
One idea would strip SNAP benefits from those who are late on child support payments.
Opponents of the bills worry that low-income families, especially children, will be hurt in a state that has already restricted welfare benefits several times in recent years. Supporters argue the bills will ensure that welfare recipients act responsibly and don’t waste taxpayer money.
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Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, is sponsoring the House version of the bill that would penalize people late on child support payments. She said she hopes the bill will continue along the path of her 2015 bill that reduced how long families were allowed to receive benefits from the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.
Lawmakers passed the bill in 2015 over then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.
“One of the results that we saw (from that bill) is that … as (people) approached their cutoff date, the more active that they were in seeking employment,” Franklin said. “So we know that that's a motivating factor, that there is a hard line somewhere.”
Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Kansas City Democrat who is sponsoring a bill that would reverse the restrictions imposed by Franklin’s 2015 bill, said he isn’t convinced by her claims of the bill’s positive effect.
“We have plenty of data showing that tens of thousands of kids got kicked off of the benefits because of the bill,” Carpenter said. “That's a fact.”
At the time, lawmakers were aware that the bill could result in more than 20,000 Missourians losing access to welfare benefits, including 15,000 children, and debated the issue at length over the 2015 session.
However, according to the Department of Social Services' most recent annual report, the cuts to children were even deeper than lawmakers expected. More than 20,000 children have been removed from the TANF program, including nearly 11,000 children under age 5, since the bill became law.
Now, opponents of bills like Franklin’s are worried that children will be hurt once again.
Rep. Cora Faith Walker, a Ferguson Democrat who sits on the committee that heard Franklin’s bill regarding child support payments, said it is “out of touch with reality” and the hurdles that working families face.
“There's a strong likelihood that if they can't afford to pay their child support, then they can't really afford to purchase food,” Walker said, “and I worry that to take away SNAP benefits could actually end up putting children in danger in those sorts of situations.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington,D.C., about 13 percent of Missourians participated in the SNAP program in fiscal 2016, and more than 70 percent of SNAP participants in the state are part of families with children.
Franklin and state Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, said they have mechanisms in place to ensure children aren’t harmed.
Hoskins said it “irritates” him that people neglect paying their child support. By restricting the SNAP benefits of only the adult who is late on child support payments, rather than the benefits of other family members, children won’t lose their assistance, he said.
“We also need to think about those children that are not receiving the child support from their parents, and the troubles and maybe financial hardship that they're going through because one of their parents is not meeting their financial obligation,” Hoskins said.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of Empower Missouri, an organization that advocates for improving social conditions, said taking away the SNAP benefits of one family member can still have adverse effects on a household overall. The average SNAP benefit in Missouri is $1.35 per person, per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“Reducing the amount of food available in a household by close to $5 a day when you take away the dad's portion means everybody eats less than they did,” Mott Oxford said.
Mott Oxford said that low-income Missourians are already overwhelmed and that removing SNAP benefits would create more hurdles by requiring an appeals process to regain assistance.
“I wish that we would talk more about ways that we can actually invest in people who are working hard and trying to provide for their families as opposed to continuing to take things away from them,” Walker said.
The House gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would strip SNAP benefits from households if program participants don’t meet increased work requirements, such as working 20 hours a week in approved work activities.
After the third time a participant fails to comply with the work requirements, they would be disqualified from SNAP for two years in the House version of the bill, and permanently removed in a Senate version.
According to a fiscal note attached to the bills, Family Support Division officials determined that about 44,000 SNAP participants would need to meet the new work requirements. These are households that include more than 48,500 children.
Mott Oxford questioned whether an “overstressed and understaffed” Department of Social Services is equipped to handle the additional work that would come with changes to SNAP. Oxford said she spoke with Patrick Luebbering, director of the Family Support Division, who told her that the turnover rate for the division is 22 percent and the average wait time at the call center is 23 minutes.
According to a fiscal note attached to Franklin’s bill, the Family Support Division would need to add five specialists to handle the increased workload.
On Monday, lawmakers disputed the department’s need for additional resources, and Rep. Jeff Pogue, a Salem Republican, successfully added an amendment requiring the bill’s changes be implemented with only current resources — which reduced the anticipated cost to the state to zero.
Now, there are no estimated costs to the state because the legislation is “not federally mandated,” according to the fiscal note.
Some lawmakers and Mott Oxford, however, argue that the bill could be subject to federal rules. If so, the state would be required to cover half of “reasonable and necessary” costs Missourians incur for participating in a mandated employment and training program. Those costs could include things like taking a bus to attend the program, Mott Oxford said.
Because of Pogue’s amendment, the fiscal note will not go through the fiscal review process. Mott Oxford worries that this will cause errors to go unnoticed. An incorrect fiscal note could cause problems later if the bills become law, she said.
“Suddenly a bill that's projected to be a few million dollars … turns out to cost millions and millions of dollars,” Mott Oxford said, “in a budget situation where … lots of things in our state are already desperately underfunded.”
While supporters like Franklin argue that restricting SNAP benefits is justified because it encourages "taking responsibility for one's children," Mott Oxford and other opponents wonder if making food assistance harder to get is the best way to ensure that happens.
“In my experience, tough love only works if you have love in greater measure than you have tough,” Mott Oxford said. “Tough love without love is just abuse.”