JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials are preparing to toughen the rules for people on welfare in an effort to meet stricter federal requirements on how many recipients must be working or trying to work.
Currently, people sign up for cash assistance and can start getting paid, and then are referred to another state agency, often in another building, to begin efforts to find a job.
A key proposed change in state rules would require people to meet with work officials up front to work toward getting a job before their application for benefits is approved.
Some advocates for the poor say the change could delay help to those who really need it and prevent some people from ever getting the benefits they should.
Like much of the nation, the state faces federal penalties if more welfare recipients don’t start working.
Missouri had more than 42,000 families receiving cash welfare benefits, as of May, averaging $235 a month.
Only about 19 percent of Missouri welfare recipients required to spend 30 hours a week looking for work, training for work or working were actually doing so, as of December.
But 46.3 percent of eligible recipients are supposed to meet the requirement in Missouri after the federal government made changes in October.
If Missouri’s ratio doesn’t improve, it stands to lose about $11 million in federal grants, and the penalty rises in future years. Those grants help pay for cash assistance along with support for workers, such as day care and transportation.
Department of Social Services officials say people do better finding jobs if they start early.
“We know that early on in the process, if people begin to work toward finding a job or getting job training, they’re very successful and require less public assistance,” Social Services spokeswoman Ana Compain-Romero said Wednesday. “We believe these are positive changes that will help more recipients go from poverty to self-sufficiency.”
State job training officials also say that under the current plan, some residents aren’t motivated to train or look for a job and will live with the cut in benefits that results from doing nothing. If the job plan is implemented at the outset, that won’t be an option.
Workforce Development Director Rod Nunn said his division spends about one-third of its work program budget on outreach, cajoling welfare recipients to come in, where they can plan for a job or discuss what might keep them from working and what help they can get to overcome those obstacles.
Carolyn Seward of Better Family Life in St. Louis, which helps welfare recipients find work, said developing job plans on the front end makes sense. Her group has workers in the same office as the Department of Social Services division where people apply for benefits, simplifying the process, she said.
But some advocacy groups worry the rules, if no changes are made, could discourage some from completing the process and result in a higher working rate only because fewer people receive government assistance.