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Heartland Institute says Missouri has lowest "welfare reform' grades

Claims of "dreadful welfare system' March 20, 2015 at 5:12 a.m. | Updated March 20, 2015 at 5:12 a.m.

When it comes to welfare reform, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute said Thursday, Missouri earned four "F"s and two "D"s - and ranked last in the nation, down from 49th in the institute's 2008 report.

"There are a few policies that we look at that we really think stress the importance of work," Logan Pike, Heartland's government relations manager and a co-author of the report, told reporters at a Capitol news conference Thursday morning.

Those policies include a work requirement, a cash diversion program, limiting time limits, integrating services and having strict sanctions, she said.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, is the focus of the national study.

Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis and now director of Empower Missouri, questioned the Heartland Institute's assumptions in assembling its report.

"They claim that we don't require people to work in Missouri," she said in an example after the news conference.

But the state's existing TANF rules require people "to meet the federal law's requirements, and that work is to begin when you are assessed to be ready - or at 24 months, whichever occurs first," she said.

Pike said all of the data collected came from the state Department of Health and Human Services, calling it "all pretty extensive, straightforward data."

In a separate op-ed piece, Pike and Justin Haskins, Heartland's editor, called Missouri's "dreadful welfare system" perhaps "the worst in the nation," and applauded the Legislature's proposals to reduce the total amount of time someone can receive TANF funds from the current 60 months to a total of 30 months in the version the House passed this week, or 48 months in the version the Senate approved last month.

House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, reminded reporters the "T" in TANF means "temporary - not permanent assistance for needy families."

But, Mott Oxford countered, "It's not that we're putting people on and leaving them there forever."

Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, said he's been researching the problem for, probably, four or five years.

"We do have a definite problem in the state of Missouri, where we have only a 14 percent to 16 percent work-activity rate," he said. "That needs to change - we are hurting our families."

Pike said the U.S. Health and Human Services department reported "only 14 percent of Missouri welfare recipients are engaged in work-related activities - even though we know that less than 3 percent of Americans who are in full-time work are in poverty."

Sater noted the proposed law doesn't just require a job to qualify for TANF benefits. "It's a work activity," he said. "It could be job training. It could be taking care of a disabled child (or other) things like this."

Mott Oxford said Missouri has "only been spending between 4 percent and 10 percent, depending on which year you look at," on work activity programs.

"If we value work activities, perhaps we should be spending more on it," she added.

The money for the program comes from a federal block-grant delivered to each state and restricted for use with the TANF program.

Ultimately, Sater said, "The savings that we will incur by getting more people working can be used in other programs, such as a single mother with a child and having child care.

"There are other states that have cut back on lifetime benefits."

Mott Oxford said people who receive the benefits the longest tend to be people with a number of personal issues, such as mental illness, developmental disabilities or live "a long way" from a job opportunity "and have no car."

She added TANF recipients get only about $300 a month.

"They definitely want something better," she said.

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