Government & Politics

Missouri lawmaker proposes restricting welfare benefits

Sen. David Sater
Sen. David Sater

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Several advocacy groups told Missouri legislators Tuesday that a proposal to restrict welfare benefits would make helping families out of poverty more difficult and would not give individuals enough time to overcome barriers to success.

The bill introduced by Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, would impose new restrictions on the length of benefits and increase repercussions for entire families if one member does not comply with work activity requirements. Sater said the changes would encourage people to find jobs.

“Unfortunately, our program in Missouri is downright failing,” Sater said at a public hearing Tuesday. The goal is to “try to get people back to work. Give them the assistance, food stamps or a monthly stipend, to get them by until they can get a job and be out on their own.”

In November, about 76,000 people were receiving cash assistance benefits. The majority, more than 51,000, were children.

Sater’s bill would require that people who are able to work be engaged in job-related activities before getting any benefits under the cash assistance program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

Currently, unless someone 18 or older is otherwise exempt, they must engage in work activities after 24 months or “once the state determines them work ready,” whichever comes first, according to Department of Social Services spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel.

Sater said only 17 percent of parents or caretakers enrolled in TANF were engaged in work activities. That reflects November 2014 data from the Department of Social Services, although the figure does not include those who qualify for exemptions, such as a permanent disability or caring for a child under 12 months.

The bill would also increase the penalty for individuals who do not comply with work requirements. Currently, they can lose 25 percent of their benefits, Woelfel said. Sater’s bill would bar the individual’s entire household from receiving any benefits for one month.

That change puts children at risk and could increase the difficulty for domestic violence victims to leave abusive partners, said Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Another provision of Sater’s bill would lower the lifetime limit for TANF from five years to two years. Sater said that was one of the provisions he was open to changing.

The limit would make it more difficult to help train individuals for work, said Heather Lockard, executive director at the Missouri Association for Community Action, a coalition of groups working to reduce poverty.

“We know it’s not enough time to obtain the skills necessary,” she said.

One provision may be useful for meeting families’ individual needs, Lockard said. Sater’s bill would allow lump-sum grants as an alternative to monthly payments.

Sater’s bill also bars eligibility from cash assistance for individuals convicted of dangerous felonies. Sarah Rossi, with the ACLU of Missouri, said this prohibition would increase recidivism rates.

Beyond proposed changes to TANF, the bill would also end a waiver the state receives from work requirements for some able-bodied adults receiving food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Participants would have three months to either find a job working at least 20 hours a week or enroll in job training.

Of the 820,367 individuals receiving SNAP benefits in November 2014, 64 percent were children, elderly or disabled. Only 10 percent of the remaining individuals were adults not employed, seeking employment or being trained.