JEFFERSON CITY - Imagine living in a foreign country and unable to speak the language. You rely on a check from the government each month to survive.
In the mail comes a letter, in a language you can not even read. Unbeknownst to you, the memo says that unless you immediately report to a government organization, your case will be closed. That means the money you need to survive will cease.
Robin Acree, lead organizer for the Reform Organization on Welfare (ROWEL), said that was the exact scenario faced by a welfare recipient this year. And, she says, it happens to people in Missouri all the time. Citizens who speak another language, or have extenuating circumstances, and receive welfare are intimidated by the Social Services Department (DSS).
ROWEL is a not-for-profit organization in Missouri that focuses on working with people and educating them about the issues associated with living in poverty.
"This was intentional," Acree said of the foreign woman's case. "Why can't they help her? Why do they have to be mean to her?"
Acree says she and 2,000 ROWEL volunteers work with people like the foreign woman all the time. They try to tell people what their rights are regarding Temporary Aid to Needy Families and DSS. She said one of the misconceptions is that people's cases can be immediately closed, and no longer receive any money from the state.
However, not everyone agrees that foreigners should be getting U.S. taxpayer financed welfare.
"I'd give a healthy dose of skepticism as to why foreigners would come here and sign up for welfare," said Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau.
Although those who do not receive welfare might not have heard it, a large clock in the state of Missouri began ticking July 1, 1997.
Federal law prohibits people from staying on TANF for more than 60 months in their lifetime. This means that even if people leave the program, then get back on, the total can not exceed five years.
After two years of receiving TANF, the law requires people to be working, or show proof that they are looking for a job, in order to continue collecting the full amount of money possible from the state. If a person is not working, the TANF check can be reduced by 25 percent.
There are exemptions for certain circumstances.
Marta Halter, county director in Boone County for the Family Services Division, said in Boone County the typical scenario is with students who attend college.
"It's better for them to focus on improving their education rather than spending more time working," Halter said.
For other people, it's a choice to not work or look for a job, she said.
However, Halter said that in July 1999, there were no cases in Boone County which resulted in TANF checks being reduced.
"It is disheartening to see how much money is poured into work search programs," Acree said. "Why, when the unemployment rate is the lowest it has ever been."
Pete DeSimone, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, agrees with Acree. His organization works on researching and writing about social welfare issues. He said that welfare was developed to help the poor, but sometimes that objective gets lost.
"Welfare has done some good and it also has had some unintended consequences," DeSimone said.
Like Acree, he said it is unrealistic for people to rely on the economy in order to find jobs and get off welfare.
"If the economy is doing well, then lots of jobs are available," he said. "In bad times it's an extremely severe problem to not help people live."
This year a proposed bill in Missouri's General Assembly would give more protection to working people on TANF. The Missouri Works Program is designed to provide community service jobs in three sites throughout the state for 1,000 TANF recipients per month. The workers would be employed for 20 hours a week for up to 12 months and receive at least minimum wage.
The program targets people who are likely to reach the expiration date for receiving TANF without securing a full-time job.
"We want the state to treat poor people with respect," DeSimone said. "Often they try, but often they fail."
Acree said that most people want to work, and those who can are looking for jobs. The problem lies in those with a disability or are like the woman from a foreign country.
She said ROWEL would rather see the money being used for child or income support programs, rather than job-seek initiatives.