Sohn: Tennessee lawmakers need a work requirement

Sohn: Tennessee lawmakers need a work requirement

April 10th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

We've become accustomed to hearing from our United States congress members that many matters — gun legislation, health care, abortion, pick one — should be up to states.

You know the battle cry: states rights.

But these days in Tennessee, the shoe is on the other foot — unless the legislation hurts the poor.

A bill to ban bump stocks — the devices that modify semi-automatic weapons so they can fire as fast as fully automatic guns — failed this month in two committees. House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said there's no need to take up the measure because federal officials are expected to ban bump stocks under existing law. Of course there's also a matter of the money and muscle of the National Rifle Association as well as at least two Tennessee gun manufacturers who have our state lawmakers firmly by their campaign pocketbooks.

As for immigration, in late March state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, pulled the plug on his in-state tuition bill for undocumented students. Election-year politics got in the way, Gardenhire said. That would be both state politics and national politics — especially given complications connected with the election of President Donald Trump, who jettisoned the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA.

But making life harder for poor people is much easier for our lawmakers.

They face no strong lobbies or uncomfortable Washington politics when it comes to things like pushing work requirements and increasing subpoena powers for monitoring the recipients of programs we commonly call food stamps, welfare, Medicaid or TennCare.

Late last year, Gov. Bill Haslam reinstated a work requirement for people to get food stamps — based on the record unemployment numbers. Now people without children or disabilities will have to work at least 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits — between $15 and $25 a month. Now these marginal workers have to sing for their supper and prove each month they worked 80 hours.

In February, lawmakers suggested a 20-hour-a-week work-requirement for "able-bodied" recipients of TennCare, which provides managed health care for about 1.2 million low-income families and children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. When you subtract the children, the mothers or fathers who are exempted because they care for children under age 6, the elderly over 65, the disabled and those receiving drug treatment, the number of "able-bodied adult enrollees" who would be required to work is a mere fraction, according to estimates from both the Beacon Center and legislative analysts.

The House approved the bill, but the Senate delayed it for further review when it was suggested that the state would spend $18.7 million, build a new bureaucracy, intrude on the lives of more than 1.2 million Tennesseans and give up nearly $10 million in federal match money — all to provide health coverage to about 3,700 fewer people. Nonetheless, reports the Nashville Post, the delay hasn't stopped the agency that oversees TennCare from posting a job listing for a policy analyst "to implement a new Medicaid work requirements program."

Now this week our lawmakers are busying themselves with a bill that "toughens fraud enforcement" in the state's welfare program. The toughened fraud enforcement part of the bill was a no-brainer for our state's red-meat, GOP-super majority. But they weren't buying a part of the bill that would boost our state's payments for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for the first time in nearly a quarter century.

The bill proposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would raise the average payment for a family of three from $185 to about $277 a month. Though inflation didn't stop during the 22 years that meager assistance was capped, the bill hit a roadblock on the House floor last week when its proponents lacked the votes to quash an amendment that keeps the toughened enforcement provisions but eliminates the raises. The bill's sponsor delayed the measure, hoping to rally votes to keep the increases.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is a federally funded but state-administered workforce development and employment program for low-income families. Tennessee's program, called Families First, has only about 25,000 families in it. Families First already has a work requirement, and the average working family earns $933 a month. That means that even with the state's average $167 assistance, the family has only $1,100 a month to live on.

Tennessee now ranks 48th lowest among states on TANF cash benefits. The stalled legislation would move the state to the 44th lowest. What's more, the raise wouldn't cost Tennessee taxpayers any more money. According to a fiscal note, the bill has no impact on state finances because TANF is federally funded. And the state has a substantial TANF reserve fund.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, last week went to bat for the raise, saying efforts to strip out the increase amounts to "punishing people because we haven't taken steps for 22 years to keep up with inflation.

"These are the working poor," she said. "Remember that, to be on [TANF's Tennessee Families First program], you have to be working. These are people who are trying."

We couldn't have said it better. Maybe Tennessee lawmakers need a work requirement.

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