This past week the Missouri House and Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 24 and sent it on to the governor. SB 24 is the reform legislation that will begin to restructure the welfare system in Missouri. Any savings is to be reinvested in incentive programs, such as childcare, job training, and transportation services designed to get people off public assistance and back into the work force. This reform legislation will lower the lifetime benefits for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Recipients can be on the current program for 60 months (5 years).TANF is a federal program that is jointly funded and administered on the state level in all fifty states. The House position was to lower the 60 month time period from 5 years to 2.5 years, while the Senate’s position was to reduce it to 48 months, or 4 years. The compromise between the House and Senate reduced it to 45 months (3 years and 9 months).
SB 24 would add Missouri to 37 other states requiring welfare recipients to take immediate steps to seek employment in order to continue receiving benefits. A study done earlier this year by the Heartland Institute showed Missouri had only a 14% to 16% work participation rate for the TANF program, ranking Missouri dead last in the nation and earning us a grade of “F” on the report. If this legislation becomes law, welfare recipients will still have the right to appeal lost benefits when they expire, as well as to seek a hardship exemption if necessary. In approving SB 24, the House voted 111 yes and 36 no, while the Senate voted 25 yes and 9 no.
A 2012 audit released by the late State Auditor Tom Schweich found that some welfare recipients in Missouri had used their benefits to buy things besides food and daily necessities. It also found that some recipients may have moved out of the state but were continuing to get Missouri benefits. The audit centered on the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that were used in the TANF program. The cards were issued as a part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Nationwide this is an $80 billion a year program administered under the Department of Agriculture. Its design is to give temporary assistance to needy individuals while they find employment or are re-trained. The original intent was never for it to be used as a permanent source of funding for recipients, and the benefits were never meant to be used in businesses associated with gambling, alcohol, tobacco, or adult entertainment which, unfortunately, seems to have been the case in some instances. It is for this reason that the General Assembly is addressing the issue and lowering the lifetime benefits to 45 months while requiring recipients to take immediate steps to seek employment in order to receive benefits.
It is inconsistent for the TANF program to continue providing services for individuals who do not take the bulk of the responsibility to help themselves. The design of this program is to give temporary assistance and job training. Many argued that the T in TANF stands for temporary and that the program was designed to help get low income Missourians off government assistance.
Now the decision as to whether to sign or to veto the legislation is up to Governor Nixon.