Arizona Lawmakers Try Slightly Less Draconian Approach to Welfare Assistance

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Arizona Lawmakers Try Slightly Less Draconian Approach to Welfare Assistance

Nicole Knight

Conservatives in states like Maine have held up Arizona's 12-month lifetime limit as a key to the GOP's austerity program.

Less than a year after the enactment of Arizona’s 12-month welfare cap—the country’s shortest—the state’s Republican governor on Monday signed a bill to give low-income Arizonans the chance at an additional year of cash aid.

Gov. Doug Ducey hailed the bill as a bipartisan measure that “rewards those making an honest effort to get off government assistance.” Poverty experts called the bill a “slight improvement” to the state’s strict 12-month limit.

The loosening of Arizona’s welfare cap comes as President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal seeks to slash the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program by $21.6 billion. Meanwhile, conservatives in states like Maine have held up Arizona’s 12-month lifetime limit as a key to the GOP’s austerity program.

The Arizona governor’s office expects three-quarters of welfare recipients to qualify for the 12-month extension, a spokesperson told Rewire. Last month, 3,537 adults and 14,260 children in Arizona received TANF cash assistance, according to the governor’s office.

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The legislation, Ducey said in a statement, “offers a hand up and bridge out of poverty.” But the bill imposes new requirements that advocates say vulnerable populations are ill-equipped to meet. Children must maintain a 90 percent school attendance rate and adults must comply with all work requirements or face losing the additional year of aid, among other provisions.

“If you get sanctioned at any point in your first year, you’re not eligible for the second year,” state Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix) told Rewire. “We certainly didn’t expect for there to be no additional strings, but that one was particularly problematic for us.”

Extending benefits an additional year is expected to cost the state $2.8 million, the governor’s office said. Why a Republican-dominated legislature agreed to bolster its safety net can be chalked up to shifting political winds, legislative horse-trading, and money.

The 12-month welfare limit was estimated to save the state $9 million, but didn’t.

Instead, the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers TANF, reported a $9 million shortfall in its child support division last year, as the Arizona Capital Times reported. The cause: repeated limits on TANF.

Welfare recipients who receive child support agree to turn over a portion of their child support to the state as part of receiving TANF. Dropping welfare recipients drained the state of child support dollars.

“In addition to not really saving the amount of money that it was supposed to, it’s actually costing the state money in child support,” Hobbs told Rewire.

The governor’s office put the estimated savings from the 12-month cap at close to $4 million—a figure that’s less than half of the anticipated $9 million in savings.

After the passage of the 12-month limit in 2015, Hobbs said state Democrats “spent the entire last session kind of bashing the governor.” She said the departure of former state Senate President Andy Biggs, who won a Congressional seat in November, removed a road block to easing the welfare cap.

“Biggs would have stopped any bill that raised the limits,” she said. “He had the power to stop any bill.”

Republicans hold a majority in both state legislative chambers. Hobbs was one of only two senate Democrats who joined Republicans to vote for the final bill.

The bill includes a few anti-poverty provisions. It makes convicted drug offenders eligible for food assistance if they’re enrolled in a treatment program. Convicted offenders had been ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And it waives occupational license fees for Arizonans whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.

Hobbs said the governor agreed to separate legislation, for which she advocated, to repeal a requirement for finger imaging of TANF recipients. Hobbs said finger imaging is ineffective and outdated in its aim of catching welfare fraud.

Ducey signed that legislation Monday along with the TANF bill.