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Republican Welfare Plan

By ELISA CROUCH
State Capital Bureau

January 11, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Like their political counterparts in Washington, Missouri Republicans say they will push for tougher welfare reform in the General Assembly this year.

But there is one difference: the word ``orphanage'' has not come out of the mouths of the Republicans who want change. Nor is it in proposed legislation.

But the basic theme of Missouri Republican lawmakers is the same one voiced by Republicans in Washington on welfare.

Since many welfare programs are protected from the state, there is not a lot lawmakers can do to change the welfare system. Programs like Food Stamps are out of lawmakers' reach.

The focus this year will be on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC. In 1994, an average of 265,663 Missouri families received AFDC payments of about $261 a month, according to the state's Family Services Division.

Many Republican lawmakers say that recipients are discouraged from looking for work because they are too dependent on the payments.

Glenn Hall, R-Grain Valley, argues this dependency could be lessened by increasing recipients' responsibilities and by putting a limit on the amount of time recipients are eligible for payments.

Last year's welfare reform package did these things. But House Republicans say the stipulations didn't go far enough.

``We need more teeth in the bill this year,'' said Rep. Paul Sombart, R-Boonville.

Rep. Ron Keeven, R-St. Louis County, agreed. ``We need to make people more self-reliant.''

Republicans say self-reliance would be encouraged by placing a 24-month limit on AFDC payments, with no extensions.

But Columbia's new Democratic Rep. Tim Harlan said he doesn't like the idea of cutting payments after a total of 24 months. ``I think they have to address the question of what happens to those people,'' he said.

During that 24-month period, Hall said recipients would be expected to spend about 14 hours a week looking for work.

But work or no work, after 24 months of receiving AFDC, the payments stop. There has been no talk of what state Republicans will do to aid children whose parents stop receiving payments.

``I haven't addressed that problem,'' Keeven said. ``But hopefully people will begin to work.''

The average AFDC recipient has been receiving payments for five years, said Greg Vadner, a deputy director for the Family Services Division. He added that if the Republican plan were enacted today, it would cancel payments to 58 percent of current recipients.

The state takes into custody children who are abused and neglected. Malnutrition falls into the neglect category, which means it is possible that the state could take custody of a child whose parent or parents are unable to buy food.

Hall said he'd like to see social institutions like churches play a larger role in helping their community's needy. This would not only take the burden off the state, he said, but it would also provide more community support to those in need.

The Republican plan also keeps single parents under the age of 21 from receiving payments until the parent is married or the child is legally adopted. By 1998, the minimum age for a single parent to be eligible for AFDC would increase to 25 years.

A parent whose spouse was deceased would be exempt from the restrictions.

The goal of these restrictions is to remove an incentive for teenage, unwed pregnancies. But some Democrats argue the Republican approach just punishes the child who is supposed to be helped by AFDC.

``It's not the child's fault it was born,'' said Rep. Gary Wiggins, D-New Cambria.

The Republican plan would stop the state from providing AFDC payment increases to women who have more children while on welfare.

``It's designed to stop supporting illegitimacy,'' Keeven said.

A similar idea was a proposed in the Senate a few years ago, but failed after encountering opposition from the Catholic Conference and others who argued it would encourage abortions.

Hall said the GOP's proposed measures this year would encourage marriage and adoption as well as improve parental accountability.

But some Democrats call such stipulations punitive, and say the Republican approach is the wrong way to tackle the problem.

``You should approach it from how do you make welfare work,'' said House Majority Whip Larry Thomason, D-Kennett.

Hall said the plan does approach welfare this way, by forcing AFDC recipients to find work and pay child support.

As for unemployed non-custodial parents who don't pay child support to children on AFDC, the Republican plan would require them to work at least 24 hours a week in a community service program and to spend at least 16 hours a week looking for work.

``If you are an able-bodied man, you ought to have a job,'' Hall said, adding that a regular child support payment could be enough to take the family off AFDC.

All recipients of public assistance under the Missouri Republican plan would be required to participate in community service, with exceptions that include having a child under six years old in the home, being employed for at least 80 hours a month and living in a place that is geographically remote from any site of community service.