The Missouri Senate began the week considering a bill that could have meant 30,000 people losing access to federal welfare benefits.
By week’s end, a compromise reduced that number to roughly 7,000.
The bill given initial approval Thursday by the Senate would reduce how long families could receive benefits through a federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
And families would eventually lose those benefits completely if parents didn’t get a job, look for work, participate in training or attend school.
Work requirements also would be reinstated for recipients of food stamps.
Proponents of the bill say the goal is to encourage people to find jobs instead of relying on government assistance.
“We’re trying to help people get back to work,” said Sen. David Sater, a Cassville Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “We want to help people out, but we don’t want people becoming dependent on the system.”
While praising Republican lawmakers for willingness to compromise, critics of the bill contend it still represents a step in the wrong direction.
“It’s better, but it’s still a very bad bill,” said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat. “We continue to set up barriers for people who are greatly in need of assistance and it’s discouraging. It demonstrates the insensitivity of this legislature.”
In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — better known as welfare reform — which established the TANF program. TANF is designed to help needy families stay afloat until parents can find work and become self-sufficient.
Missouri families can currently receive benefits for up to five years, although 57 percent have been on TANF less than two years.
In December, more than 76,000 people were receiving TANF benefits. The majority, nearly 52,000, were children.
The Missouri income guidelines for benefit recipients haven’t been updated since 1993. A family of three, for example, can earn no more than $846 a month in salary to receive $292 a month in TANF benefits.
The average amount of monthly benefits is about $230 per family.
Under Sater’s original proposal, lifetime benefits would have been reduced from five years to two. The legislation approved on the initial go-round Thursday decreased the lifetime cap to four years, which would put Missouri in line with the lifetime limit in Kansas.
But the original bill’s most controversial provision would have immediately kicked an entire family off the rolls if a parent failed to meet work requirements. Under current law, only the parent’s portion is reduced if requirements aren’t met.
“It’s one thing if we’re upset with parents for not getting a job,” Curls said. “But to penalize the children is something that is unconscionable.”
Under the Senate compromise, parents who are not in compliance with work requirements would meet with a social worker and be given six weeks to begin work activity. If they failed to do so, their family’s benefits would be cut in half for 10 weeks. After that, being out of compliance would result in losing eligibility.
The bill also calls for families to meet with a state social worker in person when they sign up for benefits.
“While we still have concerns about some sections (of the bill), we believe that human interaction with TANF recipients has been the missing ingredient in helping very vulnerable families find a way out of desperate circumstances,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the advocacy organization Empower Missouri.
The changes were enough to win the support of some Democrats, including Sen. Jason Holsman of Kansas City.
“We don’t want to foster a culture of dependency,” Holsman said. “We don’t want the safety net to become a permanent feature. We want it to be a bridge to prosperity and independence.”
Limiting the length of eligibility “creates a strong incentive to prepare for work and accept job opportunities when available,” said Logan Pike, state government relations manager for the conservative think tank The Heartland Institute.
Critics of the bill counter that while most families are only on TANF for a short time, those that remain on the program for years typically have significant barriers to employment, such as lack of education, unstable housing or mental health problems.
Also, Oxford said, the problem for those living in poverty isn’t a lack of willingness to work, but rather a lack of available jobs.
“Our economy is like a game of musical chairs,” she said. “Unfortunately, there aren’t enough chairs. We can punish people for not getting a job, but the jobs aren’t always there.”
Another provision of the bill would take any money saved by the reduction in the lifetime limit and use it to provide more funding for other safety net programs.
“We’re moving those resources into areas like job training and child care, where we are supporting someone as they move from welfare into work,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican.
The Senate needs to vote one more time before the bill is sent to the House, which is considering several bills of its own pertaining to welfare benefits.