Talk about having your priorities upside down in the Missouri General Assembly.
Legislative leaders wrapped up the first half of their session celebrating bills that could potentially cancel welfare benefits for more than 20,000 of the state’s poorest citizens, two-thirds of them children.
But lawmakers have made no progress on limiting handouts for themselves in the form of campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts.
To be sure, Missouri’s administration of its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program could use some upgrading, but not in the way the Republican-dominated legislature is going about it.
The state hasn’t updated its income guidelines since 1993. A single mother with two children — the most common profile for a TANF family in Missouri — can earn no more than $846 a month to receive $292 in cash assistance. That actually provides a disincentive to work; even a minimum wage job can cause a family to lose assistance.
The House and Senate must reconcile differences between bills they have passed, but both reduce the number of months someone can receive assistance — the House version to as low as two and a half years over a lifetime. The federal ceiling, which Missouri currently follows, is five years over a lifetime.
The House bill also has harsh sanctions for parents who don’t meet beefed-up work requirements. Failure to find a job or other approved activity within 10 weeks would cause someone’s family to lose assistance.
The two versions contain some steps forward. They require caseworkers to have more face-to-face meetings with TANF recipients, and they enable a parent who marries to continue receiving assistance for six months regardless of a spouse’s income. Savings achieved by limiting subsidies would be used to assist working parents with things like transportation and job training.
Overall, though, the attempt at welfare reform is an overreaction, in part prompted by out-of-state groups that push their agendas on state legislatures.
Most Missouri recipients receive benefits for less than 24 months in a lifetime. The legislature is primarily targeting the people with the greatest problems, like emotional difficulties and caretaking responsibilities.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to block expansion of Medicaid eligibility for thousands of Missourians who work for low wages. Though states that have complied with the expanded limits called for in the Affordable Care Act are reporting positive health and economic gains, Missouri’s elected officials refuse to even allow the issue to be debated.
As for ethics reform, the Senate has passed a bill that requires lawmakers to wait for two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists.
It does nothing, however, to limit the amount of gifts a legislator can receive from lobbyists, or how much in campaign contributions a candidate can receive from a single donor.
Based on the amount of time lawmakers have spent on the welfare bill, you’d think money going out to TANF recipients is a major problem. It isn’t. But special interest money pouring in to enrich lawmakers is polluting democracy in Missouri.
That’s a very real problem, and one that legislators haven’t yet summoned the will to address.