Right Idea, Wrong Approach
Each legislative session, there are more than 1,000 bills filed, and inevitably, many of them contain bad ideas. This year, my colleagues and I have written a lot about bad bills that contain bad ideas, and even good bills with good ideas. But what I haven’t talked about much are the bills that contain good ideas but, for one reason or another, are bad pieces of legislation. A perfect example would be this year’s “welfare” bill.
Welfare programs shouldn’t encourage dependency, but far too often they end up trapping recipients on government support. This year, two state lawmakers filed bills aimed at addressing the work disincentives that currently accompany welfare benefits. In theory, these bills sound like good ideas. Unfortunately, the approaches chosen by lawmakers for these bills have some glaring flaws.
Here are some examples:
Good Idea: Ensure welfare recipients aren’t discouraged from seeking work or career advancement.
Wrong Approach: The bills create new transitional benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs that stack on top of the program’s already existing transitional benefit programs. The result is a new layer of costly complexity on top of an already overly complex system.
Additionally, the new transitional benefit would scale benefits based on the recipient’s income. While this may sound like a good idea, the government does not collect real-time income earned by recipients, and checking income is not an easy administrative process. In reality, this change will mean more people are enrolled in state welfare programs longer.
Good Idea: Simplify income reporting to reduce burdensome bureaucracy.
Wrong Approach: The bills require applications for Missouri’s welfare programs to fit onto one page. The problem is, as the state’s department of social services reports, “a one-page form would not capture all of the information federally required to determine eligibility for these programs. FSD would need to follow up with each applicant to obtain the required information to determine eligibility.”
In other words, one page is not enough space to gather the information sufficient to comply with federal law. This increases the likelihood that more individuals will be enrolled in welfare programs than are eligible to receive benefits, only for state authorities to discover this problem after significant tax dollars are improperly spent.
Good Idea: Focus on federally funded programs that states have the flexibility to reform.
Wrong Approach: Since SNAP and TANF are federal programs, the federal government also gets a say in whether they will pay for whatever reforms Missouri enacts. But the reforms for TANF and SNAP outlined in the bill’s fiscal notes will very likely not be approved by the federal government. No other state has anything similar to what is being proposed here. So, if enacted, these reforms and new benefits would be paid for by state taxpayers. All told, the fiscal note estimates the bill would cost more than $200 million per year in new state tax dollars.
Given all of these concerns, it’s safe to say that without significant changes, I think these bills would move Missouri in the wrong direction. They would grow the welfare state, worsen program integrity, and significantly increase costs.
Since there are a number of welfare reforms that could have been proposed that encourage work, improve program accountability, and responsibly spend taxpayer dollars, it is mystifying why such reforms have not been pursued. With less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session, it’s unlikely we will see revisions to the current bills that truly reform the system. Improving Missouri’s welfare state is a difficult but worthy task. Instead of moving forward with bills that could do more harm than good, I hope lawmakers will choose to learn from this years’ experience and carry this important conversation into 2024 with reforms that actually accomplish what they say they want to accomplish.