New Spin on War on Poverty

The 2015 Missouri legislative session, which ended in scandal, may have come to a close. But what persists are the looming changes that low-income families will experience come January 2016.

After a rancorous match between Republicans and Democrats, the Republican majority shook up everything from safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to unemployment benefits.

Critical cuts halted
Tensions mounted in April when – in spite of the state’s revenue increases – six percent cuts were proposed to safety net programs that would have affected mental health services, seniors, programs for abused and neglected children and those in the juvenile justice system, among others.

The Senate wanted to “integrate” budgets from the Department of Social Services, Department of Mental Health and Department of Health and Senior Services, while putting the ownness on these departments to decide where to slash.

Some predicted the $140 million in cuts would escalate to $300 million because departments would have received less in federal matching funds.

“We find it disturbing on so many different levels that the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee wants to ‘control the rate of growth of welfare’ as he puts it,” said Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare CEO Brent McGinty. “We do appreciate the roles of the budget chairs in both the House and the Senate. I worked in the Senate in my past career, it’s a very difficult challenge. But in a year with six to seven percent revenue growth, to cut critical community safety net funding – all in the name of trying to control welfare – is a really misguided solution to a problem, quite honestly.”

The Senate backtracked and opted not to push this bill through, with pressure from Democrats, community mental health organizations, health care advocacy groups and voters, among others.

Welfare cuts
What did pass is a bill to reduce the length of time low income families can receive welfare benefits. Republicans used their supermajority in the Missouri Legislature to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto and enact a bill that reduces the length of time families can draw welfare benefits, while increasing the requirements for low income parents to get job training, find volunteer work or complete high school and/or vocational training.

Specifically, the bill is aimed at TANF which provides low income families with children under 18 federally funded cash benefits. Effective January 1, 2016, TANF tenure is limited to three years and nine months. This eliminates 15 months from the current lifetime limit of five years. As of March, there were about 73,323 Missourians receiving these benefits. On average, an eligible household receives $227 a month.

One Republican predicts the bill’s success rate will reflect on the number of happy families that will rise from poverty as a result. “I think it will be surprising to see the success rate with this bill, and the smiles on the faces of those folks that move out of the poverty trap and move into charting their own destiny,” said the bill’s House handler, Rep. Diane Franklin, a Republican from Camdenton.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat from St. Louis, said children are “being punished through no fault of their own. We’ve been giving subsidies to those who don’t really need it, but then hurting those who need it most.” Nasheed refers to the Legislature’s move to provide tax breaks for dairy farmers and other businesses.

As for overriding Nixon’s veto, Republicans stood in solidarity and easily surpassed the two-thirds vote in both chambers. The Republican-led House voted 113-42 and the Senate voted 25-9 to override Nixon’s veto.

It is estimated that roughly 3,155 families will be shuffled out of the program in January. However, some may be eligible for hardship waivers. In the first year, about 9,500 people – 6,400 of whom are children – will lose benefits, according to the Department of Social

Those who remain on the welfare rolls will be required to sign a “personal responsibility plan” that dictates efforts to find work [before] they are eligible for cash benefits. These initiatives could include anything from GED courses to job readiness training. If work assignments are missed or negated, a state case worker will be required to meet in person with the individual, who will have six weeks to meet the requirement. Those who continue to miss classes or jobs will lose half of their benefit checks.

Critics say the bill lacks empathy for the daily struggles of those who live in poverty, like not having enough gas money, lack of transportation or having a vehicle that breaks down suddenly with no means to get it repaired.

On the other hand, Missouri may be on the hook for losing its federal block grant that funds TANF if the program doesn’t improve its work requirements, according to Sen. David Sater, a Republican from Cassville and the bill’s sponsor. He said Missouri’s work participation rate is 14 percent – well below the federal requirement of 50 percent.

Sater estimates his bill will save $21 million, money that would be used for subsidized child care and transportation for single parents. “I think those are all positive things,” he said.

Other provisions of the bill include lump-sum grants to those receiving welfare for short-term needs due to employment loss, medical emergencies, domestic violence and other catastrophic situations. The grants will be allocated in place of long-term cash benefits. Additionally, the state would not count the income of a new spouse when determining the family’s eligibility for the first six months.

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a Democrat from St. Louis, said the bill will make sure that “Missouri’s poorest children are plunged even deeper into poverty. Missouri Republicans are engaged in nothing short of an all-out war on the poor, and unfortunately they are winning.”

Unemployment benefit cuts
In spite of yet another veto attempt by Nixon, Republicans can count another victory during the last session: the number of unemployment benefits a displaced worker can receive are now linked to the statewide average unemployment rate.

What this means is, if the unemployment rate falls below six percent, laid-off workers could only collect 13 week of benefits. The longest a worker could receive benefits is 20 weeks, and only if the unemployment rate is higher than nine percent.

Proponents of the bill say the changes strengthen the state’s unemployment system and ensures its solvency. However, critics counter the bill would unfairly affect people living in areas of the state with higher-than-average unemployment.

Regardless of the back and forth, Republicans deem this last legislative session as a victory.  Newly-elected Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson called the session “difficult” at times for a variety of reasons. “But as we’ve had a chance to take stock of it, we’re excited about what we were able to accomplish.”

As for the Democrats, the session leaves them with a
bitter taste. “The 2015 session is over, and for working families it couldn’t come soon enough,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny of St. Louis. “For our caucus, it’s not so much what we accomplished but we stopped.”

2015 Session Highlights
Medicaid. Lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid coverage to those making too much for traditional Medicaid but too little to qualify for federal tax subsidies in health care exchanges.

The budget. Lawmakers passed a $26 billion state budget, which Nixon signed. Included is $84 million for K-12 schools as well as additional funding for higher education.

The budget also moves more of the state’s Medicaid recipients into privately managed health care systems. Lawmakers also approved $300 million in borrowing for improvements at colleges and other state-owned buildings including the Capitol.

Anti-bullying. Proposals aimed at protecting children from bullying stalled.

Court reform. Cities must not collect more than 20 percent of their revenue from traffic fines, down from 30 percent in previous law.

“Right to Work.” Nixon vetoed the bill that would bar workers from being required to join unions and prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonmembers, calling the bill a threat to unionized workers and wages.

Now, legislative proponents must look toward the September veto session, which provides a chance for lawmakers to override any gubernatorial vetoes by a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber — 109 in the House and 23 in the Senate.

Malpractice law. Lawmakers passed and Nixon signed a bill capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases to $400,000. “Catastrophic” malpractice injuries, and those that result in death, are capped at $700,000.

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Tonia Wright

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