Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman enters the Missouri Senate on the first day of the 2023 legislative session (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
A bill that aims to soften the steep drop-off in public benefits that low-income Missourians face when their earnings increase won initial approval in the Missouri Senate Monday evening after pushback from conservative Republicans.
The Senate still needs to vote one more time before the bill is sent to the House for consideration.
Sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, the proposal would establish “transitional benefits” for two public assistance programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, and Temporary Aid for Needy Families. The bill would also expand and make permanent an existing transitional benefit for the child care subsidy program.
Rather than being immediately cut off from assistance when their income exceeds the maximum limit, families would see benefits “step down” proportionate to any increases in income.
Coleman said the bill would encourage work and self-sufficiency, because some families have to make the difficult calculation of whether to accept small raises or promotions and risk losing benefits entirely.
“What we have is people who are turning down additional wages, extra hours, raises because they’re worried about putting their childcare subsidy or food stamps in particular at risk,” Coleman said at a committee hearing earlier this month.
For each percentage increase in monthly income past the program’s cutoff, participants would see a proportionate decrease in benefits — up to the point at which they make 300% of the federal poverty line.
Any household making $75,000 per year or more would be disqualified for regular SNAP or TANF benefits and entered directly into step-down transitional benefits, regardless of household size — per an amendment added Monday night after conservative pushback. Only those in households of 11 people or greater are allowed to make that much and qualify for SNAP currently, on the federal baseline of 130% of the federal poverty level.
During the Senate debate Monday, the bill seemed to be in jeopardy when conservative Republicans raised concerns about the costs of what they framed as expanding government assistance.
Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said the bill seemed like “an expansion of programs” and that 300% of the federal poverty line seemed “substantial.”
“These are the things that we campaign on reining in,” he said. “Out of control programs.”
Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, also raised concerns about providing benefits up to the 300% federal poverty level.
“I’m all for helping people. I think it’s a good idea that we not cut off their benefits just because they’re trying to do better,” Moon said. “I do have concerns there. I think that we probably could trim that back and I would be a little bit more comfortable with it.”
Ultimately, the conservative Republicans relented after Coleman added the amendment pertaining to the $75,000 threshold.
‘Real life decisions’
Mallory Rusch, executive director of the anti-poverty advocacy group Empower Missouri, testified earlier this month that public assistance enrollees often wrestle with difficult questions and calculations.
“Can I pick up an extra shift this weekend? Can I accept this small promotion that’s going to give me that 50 cent or dollar an hour raise?” Rusch said.
Some participants worry that short-term needs, such as food assistance for their children, have to come before potential long-term benefits, such as a promotion, she said.
“They’re not going to risk their child going hungry in order to make sure that two years from now their family can be financially stable,”Rusch said. “And so these are the kinds of real life decisions that families in Missouri are having to make on a daily basis.”
The largest program by far for which the bill creates or expands transitional benefits is SNAP, the federal food assistance program. Over 330,000 Missouri families receive food assistance through SNAP.
To qualify, Missourians’ gross income must be no more than 130% of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that is a maximum of $29,940 per year.
If that family of three made just a few hundred dollars more a year, they could lose thousands in food assistance.
Other states have taken efforts to remedy steep drop offs in benefits by expanding SNAP eligibility. If it’s the case that small increases in earnings deprive people of needed benefits, the thinking goes, then the benefits cutoff may be too low to begin with.
Federal law allows states to expand SNAP eligibility by increasing the income limit from 130% up to 200% and remove the limit on assets. Missouri is one of nine states that has not adopted either policy, which are referred to under the umbrella term “broad-based categorical eligibility.”
Twenty-three states, but not Missouri, have raised the income limit all the way to 200%, including neighboring Kentucky. Others have raised it past 130% but not to the maximum: Iowa raised it to 160%; Illinois and Nebraska to 165%.
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Coleman did not frame her legislation as an expansion of eligibility for the programs so much as the addition of a separate, transitional, program that would bring people out of “dependency.”
“It’s not about increasing, though, it’s about people who are currently on the rolls,” Coleman said at the public hearing in early February. “So this is not about broadening the base of who is receiving the benefits.”
The bill allows participants’ benefits to be tapered off from the eligibility cutoff “up to 300% of the federal poverty level.”
The bill does not specify how frequently the Department of Social Services would need to verify income for the transitional benefits, or whether the federal government has indicated they would approve such a program, given that the 300% limit is higher than the 200% limit federally allowed for SNAP eligibility. The Federal Nutrition Services spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another program the legislation includes transitional benefits for is TANF, the cash assistance program. TANF serves a fraction of those who are low-income in the state: Only 5,661 families in December.
The bill proposes to help those who qualify for TANF ease out of the program, but does not expand the eligibility of those qualifying. Missouri is one of 15 states where maximum monthly TANF benefits are lowest — below 20% of the poverty line, according to a recent report by the national think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Missouri’s maximum TANF cash benefit has been the same since 1996, despite inflation — $292/month for a family of three.
Streamlining the application
The bill also attempts to streamline the process of applying for government benefits, by directing the Department of Social Services to create a one-page simplified application for its major programs.
Right now, Missouri has separate applications for each benefits program, even though they often require similar information.
All together, the current applications for Missouri’s major assistance programs add up to 63 pages, a 2020 report from the nonprofit Civilla found.
The “complex legal language and redundant questions,” Civilla found, pose hurdles to applicants.
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Coleman first filed a bill to streamline the public assistance applications in 2020 while she was serving in the House. She said she didn’t file in subsequent years because the department told her it was working on streamlining the application and had been delayed by COVID-19.
“This is three years later,” she said at the committee hearing, “and I think it’s worth putting into statute.”
Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, said at the hearing earlier this month that she experienced the lengthiness of the application firsthand while helping her sister apply for benefits.
“It is important that we do the one form,” Rehder said, “because it’s impossible to go through all those forms.”
The bill also includes a provision to restore SNAP eligibility for those convicted of drug-related felonies. At least 28 states have already opted out of the ban.
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