Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Logan Pike.
According to a recent comprehensive study of state welfare programs, Missouri earned an “F” grade for its dismal welfare policies, finishing dead-last among all states. But despite the wealth of data proving his state’s welfare program is failing, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed legislation today that would have provided needed reforms, thereby killing his opportunity to help thousands of Missourians move out of poverty into self-sufficiency. It appears Nixon’s devotion to his party is stronger than his commitment to improving welfare.
The Strengthening Missouri Families Act (SMFA) recently passed out of conference committee, gaining the final approval from the state’s House of Representatives and the Senate. The legislation would have implemented immediate work requirements, a cash diversion program, increased sanctions for non-compliance, lowered lifetime limits for cash assistance, and provided a variety of programs that would help impoverished individuals and families stay off of welfare rolls entirely.
If Nixon had signed SMFA into law, the bill’s measures would have helped to thwart welfare dependency and increase self-sufficiency. Authors of The Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card estimate Missouri’s welfare program would have jumped from its current rank of 50th up to 23rd if SMFA’s reforms had been enacted.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that out of 100 full-time working adults, only four live in poverty, and out of 100 part-time working adults, 15 live in poverty. It would seem to make sense then that successful anti-poverty reforms should stress the importance of work. So far, this has not been the case in Missouri, where welfare policies have allowed recipients to receive numerous benefits without having to work or enroll in a qualifying program.
Critics claim that it’s unfair to ask individuals to find jobs in order to receive benefits, especially in a struggling economy, but recipients can satisfy work requirements in a variety of ways, including by entering a state-run work training program, attending college, or engaging in job-search activities.
According to a 2013 report from the Cato Institute, only 17 percent of Missouri welfare recipients were engaged in work activities, and since 2013, this rate has fallen to 14.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This means 85.6 percent of welfare recipients are not engaged in “work activities,” but they are still receiving cash assistance.
Strengthening the sanctions regime for failing to participate in work activities and requiring Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) aid recipients to begin work immediately upon receiving benefits would cause a substantial increase in work participation in Missouri. That participation would make it more likely recipients would gain the necessary skills to earn an income sufficient for them to leave welfare rolls permanently at some point in the future rather than get stuck in an endless cycle of poverty.
Federal TANF rules set a lifetime eligibility limit of five years, but the SMFA follows the lead of a number of other states that have successfully adopted shorter lifetime limits, helping to create stronger incentives for recipients to prepare for work and accept job opportunities when available.
SMFA was an opportunity for Nixon and the legislature to put in place policies that would help move thousands of Missourians from government dependency to self-sufficiency. It also would have sent a powerful signal to a number of other states that Democrats and Republicans can work together toward improving the lives of struggling Americans. But now, because Nixon was unwilling to put aside politics and sign the Strengthening Missouri Families Act into law, the Missouri General Assembly should do what is best for the people of Missouri and overturn Nixon’s veto.