Members of the House and Senate continue looking for middle ground on proposed changes to state welfare programs.
A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled to meet today and will discuss imposing more work activity requirements in order for individuals to be eligible for welfare. One of the key issues to be worked out is the amount of time families are allowed to receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
This is the third time Republican State Senator David Sater has sponsored what he calls welfare reform legislation.
“Everything is pretty well settled except for the lifetime limits and that’s probably the last sticking point that we’ll have to come up with,” said Sater. “The House wants a lower limit than the Senate does, but yet if we go too low, the opposition to the bill will probably try to filibuster.”
The current lifetime limit for TANF is 60 months. The House amended the bill to 30 months, while the Senate’s position is 48 months.
“It probably won’t be 30 months and it probably won’t be 48 months, there’ll be some magic number in between,” said Sater.
Democrat State Senator Jill Schupp said recipients of those programs are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the state. Schupp said nearly 2,500 families and almost 5,000 children would be cut from the program in January if the bill becomes law with a 48 month lifetime limit.
“We’re back to square one with the number of months that we would allow a family to access TANF during their lifetime,” said Schupp. “For the well-being of these families, I just cannot agree to lower that time-frame any more.”
Republican State Representative Diane Franklin said the shorter time limit will help identify those who are on the program longer and see what their needs are, so they can be helped to move forward.
“The average length that someone receives TANF benefits in the state of Missouri is actually 27 months, so the 30 months is three months beyond the average length,” said Franklin.
Franklin said changes need to be made to help people set goals and find work.
“We’ve been in this particular model for 19 years and this particular model I’m sure was very effective and served its purpose at the time, but now we’ve come to a point where we need to do better.”
Sater agrees with Franklin and said restrictions need to be put in place in order to encourage work activity.
“What’s on the books right now is not working and this is a chance to reform this system and I think people on both sides of the aisle agree we want people to get back to work,” said Sater. “It’s our philosophy that you have to put in some sanctions that say if you’re not going to abide by the work activity requirement, then we’re not going to be paying you this TANF benefit.”
Democrat Representative Jeanne Kirkton said the requiring of more face to face meetings and exempting newly-married spouses’ income might be good reforms, but she still opposes the bill. Kirkton said she would prefer to see the lifetime limit stay at 60 months and is also concerned about the number of families that would be kicked off the TANF program once the law goes into effect.
“You can imagine what a struggle it is to try to fit the work requirements and meet all those standards when you can’t get more than $292 a month for a family of three,” said Kirkton. “The issue with this population is they are so poor that we expect them to be working.”
Kirkton said more than 7,500 families and more than 15,000 kids would be cut from the TANF program in January if the bill becomes law with a 30 month lifetime limit.
Franklin believes the legislature can reach an agreement that won’t mean a sudden end to benefits for any recipients, but instead a path off of welfare programs and back to the workforce or an education.
“I think that in conference we can work through it to get something that on January 1st of 2016, it doesn’t create a cliff, that we can create a bridge,” said Franklin.
Republicans hold the majority, so it is likely that the final version of the bill will propose shortening the lifetime limit.