Government & Politics

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoes bill cutting Missouri welfare benefits

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday vetoed legislation that would remove several thousand low-income families from Missouri’s welfare rolls by shortening how long they can receive cash payments and tightening their work requirements.

But some low-income parents with children in day care at Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, where Nixon made the announcement, said they worry the governor’s action may not hold. Legislators could override Nixon’s veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, a threshold they met when passing the bill two weeks ago.

“That would really be a shame,” said Malika Francis, a single mother of four children, ages 1, 3, 4 and 5. “It will make it really hard to make ends meet.”

Nixon, a Democrat, described the bill passed by the Republican-led General Assembly as “a misguided measure that punishes poor children” in a “zeal to reduce reliance on government assistance.”

The legislation on Jan. 1 would take assistance away from more than 6,400 children, 2,600 of them below the age of 5.

“When it comes to adults, we can all agree on the need for personal responsibility, but these are children,” Nixon said, thumping the lectern with his index finger.

“I don’t sign bills that hurt kids — period.” The measure, he said, is “mean spirited” and makes children “collateral damage” in an effort to force adults off public assistance.

The legislation would reduce the lifetime limit for receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years and nine months, starting Jan. 1. The Department of Social Services estimates that 3,155 families would lose benefits in the first year.

The program allows for temporary financial assistance to help poor families with one or more children pay for food, shelter, utilities and expenses other than medical.

House Speaker John Diehl, a Town and Country Republican, issued a statement in response to the veto.

“The governor’s mischaracterization of these common-sense reforms as harmful to children is blatantly false,” the statement said.

“The bill provides Missourians in need with almost four years of benefits and invests the savings generated through these reforms in areas such as child care, education and job training, which will be a huge help to the families served by the program.”

He said the current welfare program is far from its originally intended purpose of temporary help with the goal of getting people back to work.

“The program as it exists now has been a failure in achieving that goal as it has been rated as the worst in the country when it comes to moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency,” Diehl said. “We passed the bill with a veto-proof majority, and I am confident we will succeed in overriding his veto in the coming days.”

The legislation also would set up an intervention system if parents don’t follow work or education requirements. State case workers would have to meet face-to-face with people and give them an additional six weeks to comply. If people still fail to meet work requirements, their families’ benefits would be cut in half. Then they would have an additional 10 weeks to come into compliance or be kicked off the program.

About 15 percent of Missouri’s welfare population is meeting current work requirements, which puts the state near the bottom in that area, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. The state Department of Social Services estimates that more than 6,600 families could lose benefits for failing to comply with work requirements.

Nixon suggested that “there are other ways to do this and still protect kids.” He cited a law that stops public assistance to parents involved in drug use but appoints a guardian to receive the benefits for the children in that family.

“They need to do that for kids here,” Nixon said.

Republicans who control the legislature say the cutbacks could spur parents to become self-sufficient while saving the state millions of dollars that could be redirected to other programs such as childcare subsidies.

“I think they think we want to be on government assistance, but we are just trying to survive,” said Donnetta Stuart, 36, a single mother of three children ages 18, 11 and 5. A former fast-food worker, she starts a job with the Local Investment Commission next week.

“I don’t want to be going somewhere asking for help,” Stuart said. “This program is helping me get off public assistance ... go back to school. I work.”

But, for now, she said, the $400 to $500 in food stamps she receives each month “helps to balance things out so I can take care of my kids.”

Others said they worry that legislators are being shortsighted and that if Missouri residents lose benefits, “it’s not just going to affect the ones who are on it but everyone,” said Francis, who said she works at a Wendy’s restaurant and receives about $555 a month in food stamps and $120 in cash assistance.

“If people lose benefits, the grocery stores where they shop will lose a lot of business, and people who work there could lose their job,” she said. “The crime rate will go up. Because what do you think people will do when their children are hungry?

“This just doesn’t make sense. They want people off of public assistance, but they don’t want to raise the minimum wage. They go together.”

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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