JEFFERSON CITY _ State Democrats call last year's welfare reform bill the toughest in the country. Still, Republicans say it's not enough.
This year, GOP lawmakers are pushing for further reform in Missouri's welfare system _ even though not all of the provisions of last year's legislation have taken effect.
"Why are we not willing to let that bill be given a chance?" asked Social Services Committee Member Rep. Deleta Williams, D-Warrensburg, during a committee hearing on the GOP bill.
Republicans say that last year's welfare reform needs more teeth.
"This bill basically tightens that bill up," said Rep. Ron Keeven, R-St. Louis County, before the Social Services Committee.
The bill passed last year, at the urging of Gov. Mel Carnahan, limits the time families can receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children to 24 months. After aid has been cut off, the family may apply for an additional 24-month extension.
AFDC is the state's main welfare program that provides support for low-income parents _ mostly single-parent families.
Under GOP proposed legislation, extensions to the 24-month limit could be given only to those with disabilities or with dependents requiring full-time care.
Last year's bill would phase in the time limit, reaching 25 percent of AFDC recipients by 1997.
Sponsors of the GOP bill say it should target all recipients.
"Enough is enough," Keeven said. "Let's make those people accountable now."
Another difference between last year's welfare reform and the Republican proposal is how the state would handle unwed mothers under 18 years old.
Last year's reform requires that single mothers under 18 must reside with a parent, legal guardian or an adult-supervised supportive living arrangement in order to receive payments. There are exceptions, like no living parent or guardian, or if the mother or child's health and safety would be at stake by returning to the parents.
The GOP plan would cut single mothers under 18 from the AFDC program altogether. By 1998, the age would rise to 25. Only if the mother marries or if the child is legally adopted would the child be eligible for aid.
Statistics from the Family Services Division indicate that 30 percent of AFDC recipients are under 25 years old.
"Sad and bewildering" is how Peter DeSimone of the Missouri Association for Welfare termed the GOP plan.
"You've got to remember that two thirds of those on welfare are children," DeSimone said. "You can't shoot the mother without hurting the children."
Keeven said that his intention is to help recipients, not hurt them. "This bill was not designed to be mean or cruel," he said.
Republicans say that they want to toughen child support laws too.
Democrats say they did that last year with a new law that requires unmarried mothers to declare the child's father right after birth. The goal of the disclosure requirement is to make the child's father take responsibility for support.
The Republican plan would require that single fathers who are unemployed participate in community service programs to supplement child support. They also would be required to spend 16 hours a week looking for work.