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Lawmakers Want Stricter Rules For Families Getting Cash Assistance

Jaro Larnos via flickr

Florida lawmakers want to tighten the rules for low-income families getting cash assistance. A bill moving in the House would withhold benefits longer for those who don’t meet work requirements. 47,013 Florida families are enrolled in the program, as of October 2017.

Florida families making 185% of the federal poverty limit or less can qualify for temporary cash assistance, or TANF. The vast majority of Floridians on this program are kids under the age of 18. But eligible adults generally have to meet work requirements, like on the job hours, training, job searching, or providing childcare.

Now state lawmakers want to crackdown on people who aren’t complying with those rules. Cape Coral Republican Dane Eagle is sponsoring the bill in the House.

“The noncompliance sanctions will be tighter. They’ll align with the food stamp restrictions, rather than the temporary cash assistance ones. But again we’re trying to make it easier to comply. Not necessarily easier but more efficient to find ways to work with them one on one, so they understand what it is so they’re getting back to work and back on their feet. The aim is not to sanction people. The aim is to find ways to work with them,” Eagle said.

If parents miss work once, they would lose out on benefits for one month. Miss work twice, it’s three months. Three times, it’s six months. They would get job training and counseling. And children of disqualified parents would still qualify for a certain period of time, but eventually their benefits would run out too.

Eagle’s bill would also expand the places benefit cards, or EBT cards can’t be used.

“When it comes to EBT cards, there are certain areas or certain places where those are not allowed traditionally, such as gambling, places where alcohol is sold. We’re adding to that medical marijuana dispensaries. We’re adding tobacco shops, and piercing and tattoo parlors,” Eagle said.

"It comes to a point where people that, with these changes, are not complying are doing it because they simply don't want to."

There are plenty of valid reasons why someone might miss work, like medical or family emergencies, court appearances, and lack of transportation or childcare. But even with those exceptions, Eagle says some recipients aren’t cooperating.

“It comes to a point where people that, with these changes, are not complying, are doing it because they simply don’t want to. And if there are cases where that is not happening, we need to fix that and try and find ways to work with them. But for those who refuse to comply, who just don’t want to work with us and continue this partnership, there’s no reason we should be giving them cash handouts,” Eagle said.

For reference, a state analysis shows the most a family of four could get in a month is $364. Even for those who just aren’t complying, Karen Woodall says the sanctions are too much. She’s with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.

“As we work together to try to make sure it’s a more seamless system and that people actually have the support to get the jobs and get off of the program, I would encourage us to let’s give that a try first before we increase penalties. Because again, we’re putting children at risk of falling into the child welfare system,” Woodall said.

And again, the vast majority of Floridians in this program are needy children. Cindy Huddleston with Florida Legal Services doesn’t want them to be punished.

“And more importantly because it sanctions the children of parents who are non-cooperative, after a specified time, for what can be indefinite or even permanent disqualification,” Huddleston said.

"We're putting children at risk of falling into the child welfare system."

The bipartisan plan has backing in both chambers. And a House committee overwhelmingly voted it forward Wednesday. But even with supporters, there are some caveats. Here’s Wellington Democratic Representative Matt Willhite.

“I think we do have some people who are very concerned about some of these changes and how far they go. And there are concerns about we don’t’ have enough data from previous research to already be moving forward. So again, I’m going to support it moving forward, but I appreciate your openness and willingness to talk about this and know that hopefully through the process we can make this better,” Willhite said.

The plan has two more committee stops in the House. The Senate version hasn’t had a single hearing yet.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.