Republicans in the Missouri Senate acted in the spirit of compromise when they backed away from very harsh proposals aimed at removing families from welfare rolls.
Instead of reducing lifetime benefits from five years to two, the version now under consideration halts benefits at four years. It also aims its most punitive measures at parents, not children.
But even the softer version, which is expected to be moved along to the House, will impose hardships on families and worsen problems such as hunger and homelessness unless lawmakers correct some longstanding issues.
▪ The Senate bill, sponsored by David Sater, a Cassville Republican, seeks rigid enforcement of work requirements for recipients of welfare and food stamps.
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Before contemplating that, however, the state must put more resources into preparing this low-income population for the workforce. That should include counseling, schooling and transportation for parents who are job hunting.
Missouri spends only 4 percent of its federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant funds on work-related assistance. That’s below the national average of 8 percent, and it seems disproportionately small for a state whose lawmakers claim to place a high priority on self sufficiency.
▪ Legislators must also update income eligibility guidelines and benefit limits, which haven’t changed since the 1990s.
A single mother with two children must earn less than $846 a month to be eligible for $292 in cash assistance. A family of four must earn less than $990 a month to qualify for $342 in benefits.
Besides keeping families in abject poverty, those limits — which are among the lowest in the nation — actually discourage people from working. Even a minimum wage job can get a parent kicked off the welfare rolls. And low-income parents are reluctant to let go of steady benefits to take low-paying jobs with unreliable shifts and hours.
▪ Missouri’s Family Support Division, which administers the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, has been mired in administrative chaos for some time. If lawmakers are serious about moving families from welfare to independence, they must insist on a much better-functioning agency for that important work.
People of all political persuasions agree that self-sufficiency for all families should be the goal. If Missouri lawmakers continue in a spirit of compromise, they have an opportunity to manage that in a more creative and helpful way.