Helena, Montana, United States, North America
Jessica Harding’s story didn’t start out with poverty, she told lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee on Thursday.
But that’s the situation she was thrust into during the pandemic, out of work for the second time in recent years and in the midst of a six-month wait for unemployment to hit. Though she once made in excess of $80,000 a year, she was now relying on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, better known as SNAP or food stamps, to feed her family. SNAP was a godsend, she said, as she could not receive cash assistance from the government because she refused to pursue child support payments from her son’s father, a necessary requirement for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payments.
The father her son had never met was abusive, to her and to other children, and in the depths of drug addiction, she said.
“Filing for child support would make him fight for custody to ease his financial burden, but ultimately would put my child in danger,” she told lawmakers.
But under proposed legislation the committee heard Thursday, Harding and others in her position would have to apply for an exemption to child support cooperation requirements to receive not only cash assistance and childcare support but also food stamps, something that opponents warn could inadvertently kick needy families off the SNAP rolls and put survivors of domestic violence in a difficult position.
House Bill 339, sponsored by Rep. Frank Fleming, R-Billings, would require those who owe child support to make their payments and those who are due child support to cooperate with the state’s efforts to obtain compliance with a child support arrangement in order to receive SNAP benefits.
In the hearing, Fleming and the bill’s lone registered proponent, Scott Centorino, said the proposal could increase child support collections by as much as 75% and help single parents earn enough to move off welfare.
But critics warn of serious unintended consequences. People who miss child support payments often do so because they have no financial choice, so denying them food assistance is unlikely to force them to reach deeper into their pockets, they say.
“Taking SNAP benefits away from non-custodial parents who are struggling to meet their basic needs can hurt both the parent and child,” said SJ Howell, a lobbyist for Montana Women Vote. Plus, she said, creating an additional layer of government verification to access SNAP benefits “could result in individuals who have met their obligations or who no longer have obligations losing their … benefits” if not done carefully.
“A lot of the pushback is either directly or indirectly related at the root to a fear of decreased welfare benefits or enrollment,” said Centorino, a senior fellow with the national conservative nonprofit Foundation for Government Accountability, which advocates for work requirements and other restrictions on government benefits. “This reform does what it promises to do. It gets single moms what they are owed so they can leave welfare.”
Federal law allows states the option to create child support cooperation and payment requirements for SNAP, something several state legislatures have done — though many, as opponents Thursday pointed out, rescinded the law not long after enacting it. Federal law stipulates that all states already must require such cooperation for TANF and Medicaid; Montana and some others have similar requirements for federal childcare subsidies as well.
Indeed, in 2019, the Trump-era U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged state governments to adopt these requirements for the SNAP program, something several states since have proposed doing, including Iowa, where Centorino spoke on behalf of similar legislation just this week.
Opponents of HB339 pointed to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Utah on a similar bill in that state’s legislature that suggested the estimated administrative cost and the decrease in food stamp benefits did not yield a substantial increase in child support payments.
Around 50,000 Montana households receive SNAP benefits. In 2019, when the Republican-led state Legislature passed a similar proposal that ultimately fell to a veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, budget analysts at the state Department of Health and Human Services said that of the roughly 14,000 single-family SNAP cases, only 1,500 have open cases with the State Child Support Enforcement Division.
This means that caseworkers would have to verify benefit eligibility for the remaining 12,000-plus households that don’t already have open files with child support enforcement. In the fiscal note attached to the 2019 bill, HB290, budget analysts forecasted this effort could cost the state as much as $700,000 in the program’s first year, a number that proponents say could be offset somewhat by a decrease in the amount of Montanans on welfare.
That $700,000 is in addition to the human cost of depriving someone of food, said Howell. That’s a core need, one the state can’t force someone to go without, Howell contends, something that might set the program apart from TANF. Cash assistance in Montana is also a much smaller program than SNAP, Howell added — around 1,500 families compared to 50,000.
The state of Montana has recognized SNAP as an important program in part because it’s food assistance,” Howell said. “We’ve recognized that as a core basic need.”
As far as for people in Jessica Harding’s position, Centorino said the law already provides for “good cause” exemptions for child support requirements in administering TANF and Medicaid benefits, something that would extend to SNAP if the bill were to pass.
In these instances, a person can attempt to convince the state that a child support arrangement would not be in the best interest of their child, an argument often made in instances of rape and domestic violence.
However, extending the good-cause exemption is not an instant fix, as people who might have plenty of reasons to not want a child support arrangement still fall through the cracks, said Kelsen Young, the executive director of the Montana Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“Those existing programs already have severe difficulties with good cause,” Young told the committee. “You have to start first with an (Office of Public Assistance) application and an OPA interview. The assumption is that case workers know about good cause, will tell you about it, and see that it exists.”
But Harding, for example, said she didn’t even know about the possibility of getting a good-cause exemption for her TANF benefits until someone from an advocacy group mentioned it to her.
Part of the problem with administering the program is that “good cause” is subjective, testified Erica Johnston, operations services branch manager with DPHHS.
“The biggest challenge is, there is no federal criteria that tells us what qualifies as good cause,” she said, adding that there is “certainly is a lot of room for inconsistent application for good cause.”
HB339 is one of multiple welfare reform bills that Republican lawmakers are carrying this session with the stated intent of rooting out fraud or boosting efficiency, a common aim for years among conservative policymakers on the national level. Earlier this week, a Senate panel passed SB100, which would require regular crosschecking of Medicaid eligibility against a variety of government databases.
The proposal generated similar objections from a similar group of opponents as HB339. Like the bill heard Thursday, SB100 had just one proponent, also Centorino, during its January committee hearing.
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