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Advocates tout ‘transition benefits’ to prevent Missourians from falling out of social safety net

Santiago Bianco, 31, of Gravois Park, shops for fresh produce on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, at MARSH Grocery Cooperative in Carondelet. “I felt like I was having a pretty good day, until I learned [MARSH was] closing and I was a little distraught,” Bianco said of the community co-operative that opened in 2020 with a ‘pay what you can’ model. “Now I have to find a new place to get my groceries and prepared meals.”
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Recently enacted bill legislation authorizes transitional benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and others.

Missourians will soon see the advent of so-called transition benefits for food and income assistance, something proponents say will prevent low-income families from having to choose between critical social safety programs and career advancement.

The measure was included in two different bills that were signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson. In essence, transition benefits gradually reduce the amount of benefits someone gets from sources such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as their income rises.

Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said earlier this year that the measure is aimed at reducing disincentives to advance in the workforce.

“Basically, if you make $1 more than the qualifying amount, then you receive nothing at all,” Coleman said. “And so, people are not going to risk betting on themselves to take extra hours at work. They're not going to accept a raise. They're not going to try to start a business.”

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Caitlin Whaley said her agency is having conversations with the federal government about how to roll out the transitional benefits program. But she added that the legislature would need to give appropriations approval before progress can be made on specifics for the program.

Coleman said a number of other states, including Utah and Indiana, have implemented transitional benefits. She added that the program’s goal is “to make sure that people can bet on themselves that they're able to work their way out of poverty and out of dependency on the state.”

“And what we've seen is it actually drops the overall number of people that are using the system, because they're able to work their way into independence,” Coleman said. “If a big-box store increases their pay, let's say from $15.50 an hour to $16 an hour, that could be a net loss of $7,500 for a family, which that's not something most people are able to handle, who are living in poverty in the working poor. So I'm really excited that we were able to get that across the finish line. It's the kind of thing that is common sense solutions that's going to try to help people.”

Mallory Rusch of Empower Missouri said another beneficial aspect of the bill is a provision requiring the Department of Social Services to simplify applications for benefits.

“The program applications are very long. They're written in a lot of legalese. They're very confusing,” Rusch said. “And there's a lot of duplication in questions across various programs in a way that families are having to just do so much more work than they really need to do to get the benefits that they're entitled to by federal law.”

Rusch said that there was a lot of bipartisan buy-in for transitional benefits.

“There are just a lot of businesses that are still struggling in a post-pandemic environment to be able to attract and retain employees,” Rusch said. “And so I think that that has really caught the attention of some of the more fiscally or economically minded members of the Republican Party. And so what I feel like I saw and heard this session were lots of conversations about what are some of the ways that we can mitigate this? What are some of the ways that we can make sure that you know, people who, who want to work can work and can stay in jobs and positions?”

An earlier version of the bill would have included housing-related programs in the transitional benefits program — and would have removed a prohibition on drug offenders getting benefits. Both of those provisions were removed from the final version of the bill.

Rusch said there could be a renewed effort to remove the ban for drug offenders next session. Some lawmakers, she said, may want to wait to see how much the program ends up costing before expanding it to housing benefits.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.