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Missouri lawmakers debate shorter time limits for welfare recipients

UPDATE at 3:10 p.m.: In order to avoid thousands of Missouri families immediately losing federal welfare benefits, Republican lawmakers say they are willing to allow current enrollees to stay on the program even beyond any new lifetime limits they plan to impose.

“We really want to avoid a cliff effect and instead create a bridge to life beyond welfare,” said Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican.

But if they agree to “grandfather in” current TANF enrolless, Republican Sen. David Sater of Cassville said the lifetime limit could be no higher than three years.

There was no vote taken on the bill Monday, as Sater continues to work on a new version for the conference committee.

Original story....

JEFFERSON CITY — House and Senate negotiators will meet Monday afternoon to iron out differences over legislation that could result in more than 20,000 Missourians losing eligibility to federal welfare benefits — including 15,000 children.

The core of the bill reduces how long families can receive benefits through a federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Currently, the lifetime limit on benefits is five years. The Senate reduced that to four years. The House cut it even further to two and a half years.

A conference committee will mee at 2 p.m. to work out the differences.

Of the roughly 73,000 Missourians receiving TANF benefits in February, around 22,000 had been on the program longer than two-and-a half years and are subject to the time limit.

Two-thirds of all TANF recipients are children.

In addition to reducing lifetime benefits, the bill also implements stricter work requirements for TANF and food stamps and calls for families to meet with a state social worker in person when they sign up for benefits. Savings from the changes would be redirected to help pay for other safety net programs, such as child care assistance or job training.

The House also added provisions that dedicated 2 percent of TANF funds to alternative to abortion services and awareness programs, as well as 2 percent for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood promotion.

“Our goal is to set a path to work, where people are more motivated to go to work than to stay on welfare,” said House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican.

Critics of the legislation, however, say those who reach the lifetime limits typically face significant barriers to employment, such as lack of education, unstable housing or mental and physical health problems.

A 2013 study by the University of Maine found that families kicked off of TANF due to exceeding lifetime benefits in that state experienced increased reliance on food banks, inability to pay utility and other bills as well as overcrowded housing conditions or reliance on homeless shelters.

In addition to the legislation being debated Monday afternoon, the Senate’s version of the budget for social services is $130 million smaller than the version passed in the House.

“The General Assembly should not pass welfare reform at the same time that they pass budget cuts to programs that serve TANF families,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri.

The Missouri income guidelines for benefit recipients haven’t been updated since 1993. A family of three can earn no more than $846 a month in salary to receive $292 a month in benefits.

The average amount of monthly benefits is about $230 per family.

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