Jeff Roberson / AP

Missouri to cut welfare benefits for thousands, including 6,400 children

Overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto, Missouri legislature votes to reduce state’s lifetime welfare limit

Missouri lawmakers voted Tuesday to remove thousands of families from a welfare program, overriding a veto by the state's Democratic governor.

The new law will reduce Missouri's lifetime limit for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program, known as TANF, from five years to three years and nine months, starting Jan. 1, 2016. The law also imposes stricter work requirements and directs a portion of Missouri's federal TANF funding to alternatives to abortion and promoting marriage and fatherhood.

About 9,500 people — 6,400 of whom are children — would lose benefits in the first year, according to Department of Social Services estimates cited by The Kansas City Star.

The Republican-led House voted 113-42 Tuesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto, largely along party lines. The Senate voted 25-9 on Monday to override the veto.

Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, who sponsored the bill, estimates the cuts will save about $21 million, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Individuals would have six weeks after a face-to-face meeting with a social worker before losing half their family's benefits. All benefits would be cut off after an additional 10 weeks.

"The responsibility is not with the government. It's with the families. It's with the parents if they decide not to comply with the work activity requirement," said Sater.

Supporters said the measure will encourage people on welfare to find a job and get off government assistance. It's part of a push by Republicans in several states to curtail spending on social programs in a way they say restores personal responsibility.

In 2013 researchers in Maine found that cuts to TANF push families deeper into poverty and force them to rely on charity, according to the anti-poverty group Maine Equal Justice Partners.

"Nearly 70 percent reported that they had to go to a food bank after losing TANF and more than 1 in 3 families lost a utility service, such as electricity," the study states. "One in five reported being evicted from their home; having to relocate, often to overcrowded living conditions; or needing to go to a homeless shelter."

In neighboring Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, signed a measure earlier this year to prohibit spending cash assistance on recreational activities such as swimming pools and movies.

"They want their independence. They don't want to be in this poverty trap all their lives, and they don't want their kids to be in this poverty trap. They want and they say that we can be successful if we have the tools," said Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton, who handled the bill in the House.

Because of the lower lifetime limit — among the 10 shortest in the nation — about 3,000 families are projected to lose benefits, which are capped at $292 a month for a parent with two children, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said the welfare limits could drive parents to prostitution or other crimes to provide for their families. "We've been giving subsidies to those that don't really need it, but then we're hurting those that need it most," he told the Post-Dispatch. 

There are about 73,000 Missourians receiving TANF benefits, the paper reported, and 60 percent of those people are children. 

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said the legislature was "not cutting welfare" but "restructuring the system" and "reinvesting the savings" into such things as child care, job training and transportation for low-income families.

When Nixon vetoed the bill last week, he cited concerns that it would punish children for the actions of their parents. The measure imposes sanctions on the entire family if a parent does not comply with requirements to participate in work activities, which can include volunteering, job training or education.

“I don’t sign bills that hurt kids — period,” said Nixon, according to The Kansas City Star.

Some Democrats said they liked some components of the bill, including an orientation program in which a person signing up for benefits would learn about other assistance available to them, a lump-sum option for families with short-term needs and the face-to-face meetings before sanctions take effect.

The legislation will also require people to engage in work activities before becoming eligible for cash assistance and food stamps.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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