JEFFERSON CITY • With now an estimated 42,000 Missourians off of food stamps, the state is ramping up efforts to expand job training, but advocates say they are overwhelmed as more and more people lose benefits.
Under federal law, able-bodied adults without dependents – also known as ABAWDs – can get food stamps three months in every three years. When unemployment is high, states can seek to waive that limitation. Last year, under a bill Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed that was eventually overridden, Missouri lawmakers opted not to ask for a waiver, citing improved unemployment rates.
Also last year, the GOP-led House and Senate voted to tighten the path to cash benefits, limiting the length of time families can receive temporary cash benefits from a lifetime maximum of 60 months to 45 months.
Additionally, they ramped up requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete high school or vocational education.
Recipients have to sign a personal responsibility plan outlining their work activities, meeting with a caseworker if they miss assignments. There is a grace period in which they can get back on track, and recipients only lose half of the assistance initially, forfeiting the entire benefit if the problems aren’t resolved.
Before a legislative panel last week, Julie Gibson, director of Missouri’s Family Support Division, discussed some of the state’s efforts to get these recipients into the workforce, including a pilot program partnering with the state’s community colleges and a health grant that will help people get certificates for health care jobs in St. Louis, Kansas City and mid-Missouri.
Still, lawmakers raised concerns. Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Ferguson, questioned how many people no longer receiving benefits or food stamps have really found well-paying jobs.
“In the past, the administration has used different programs for PR purposes as opposed to really putting people to work,” Curtis said. “I want to see what the benchmarks are to see how we are actually performing. Because if it’s 42,000 people, that’s a significant amount. But if they’re not being adequately trained, that means were doing this again for other reasons other than what our intentions were.”
Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, questioned what resources were available for Missourians who were cut off from benefits without first securing a job. She also asked if the state was assisting people who needed help with transportation or child care in order to participate in the required work activities.
Gibson said the state was working with the advocacy community, including local food banks, explaining that outside organizations are often available to assist.
“I think that the partnerships we are working on, many of these partners, like community action agencies and others, have the ability to help provide some of those wraparound services, like child care and transportation,” Gibson said.
But those agencies are often already overwhelmed. Empower Missouri’s Hunger Task Force, for example, includes individuals from food banks who are seeing families come in seeking aid after losing these benefits.
Jeanette Oxford, Empower Missouri’s executive director, said lawmakers’ desire to reduce reliance on government aid is often seen as tough love.
“Unfortunately for Missouri lawmakers, when they see someone in poverty, they ask ‘what is wrong with you?’ when they should be asking ‘what happened to you?’,” Oxford said.
Barbara Ross, director of social services with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, said a system that relies on charities to pick up the slack isn’t working.
“There aren’t enough charitable agencies out there to fill the need. We need a completely different plan than just charity,” Ross said.
She also questioned what kind of jobs the state hopes its poorest residents can get, and argues many who seek services with her organization already do all they can in the workforce.
“A lot of them are working people, they just can’t live on the jobs they have,” Ross said. “Job training is fine. But many of the people who come to our agency, I’ve found, have low levels of educational achievement. What jobs are they training them for that are at a living wage?”
Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, defended the legislature's actions at the hearing, saying work readiness efforts are a good starting point.
“I appreciate all the partnerships that we made, and I think we’re moving in the right direction, putting people to work, getting them trained, because work is the only ticket out of poverty. We all know that,” Haefner said. “It was a very controversial bill, but I think without this legislation we might just continue to be stuck.
“Welfare reform is not meant to punish people, it’s meant to redirect services to the right people,” she added.
Gibson also pointed out that people who drop off from participating in work activities can re-engage and get benefits back.
“If they can demonstrate a willingness and a desire to do that, they can come back in,” Gibson said.
But for Ross, Oxford and other advocates, lawmakers and state agencies aren’t getting at the root of the problem, and they say their organizations can only do so much to help.
Oxford called on legislators to reconsider the job training model and think bigger.
“It does not really get people to work. If we really want to get people to work, we need to create jobs,” Oxford said, adding that the state should also invest in preventing early childhood trauma, which can set people up for failure for life.
“We need systems and structures that support children, that create jobs and provide child care for working parents. Living wage jobs with benefits,” Ross said.
She said Catholic Charities has often had to step in and help people who can’t work temporarily because of health issues. Sometimes, they go bankrupt and are unable to pay their bills.
“You just cannot attribute all of these problems to people’s laziness,” Ross said.