2014 legislative update: Alabama Senate committees OK bills to impose tougher rules on TANF recipients

Alabama Senate committees this week considered legislation that would make getting public assistance far more complicated for low-income Alabamians. The bills, all but one of which won committee approval Wednesday, would impose additional requirements on people who receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Among the legislation are bills that would:

  • Require drug tests for certain TANF applicants convicted of drug-related crimes;
  • Impose community service requirements for recipients of many public benefits;
  • Limit what can be purchased with TANF benefits and the locations where debit-like Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards can be used; and
  • Require TANF applicants to apply for three jobs every week to remain eligible, as well as restoring the so-called “man-in-the-house” rule regarding cohabiting partners.

Committee approves bill to require drug testing of some TANF recipients

A Senate committee voted 6-1 Wednesday for a bill to require drug tests for certain TANF applicants. SB 63, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, would allow the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to order drug testing for a TANF applicant when there is “reasonable suspicion” of drug abuse.

The bill defines “reasonable suspicion” as a previous failed drug test or a conviction for using or distributing drugs within the last five years. Alabama law already imposes a lifetime TANF eligibility ban on people with felony drug convictions.

SB 63 is more narrowly tailored than previous testing proposals. The bill is limited to TANF recipients only, and it protects the benefits of the children in the family should an adult caretaker test positive for illegal drugs. The state would pay for initial drug tests under the plan.

Sens. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, and Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, both expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on recipients and DHR. Pittman acknowledged that the bill likelywould cost DHR “tens of thousands” of state dollars.

Despite these concerns, Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, commended Pittman’s approach of proposing a narrower drug test requirement than those attempted elsewhere.“Other states have tried this, and it hasn’t worked,” Taylor said.“Thank you for trying to get it right.”

No action on bill to require community service for recipients of many public benefits

A plan to require many recipients of public benefits to perform community service received a chilly reception in a Senate committee Wednesday. SB 87, sponsored by Taylor, would order most recipients of a wide variety of public benefits in Alabama to provide 20 hours a week of compulsory community service with a school or nonprofit organization to receive those benefits. The committee delayed a vote on the bill but could consider it again in the coming weeks.

SB 87’s definition of public benefits is linked to federal immigration law and includes most benefits that are based on the income of the individual receiving the assistance. That list includes TANF, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment compensation, public and Section 8 housing, and Pell Grants used to attend non-public schools.

Exact numbers are hard to determine, but the total number of Alabamians affected could exceed 1 million people. SB 87 includes no explicit exceptions for people who are elderly, employed, in school or job training, lack transportation to a community service work site, care for very young children, or care for someone who is disabled. The bill’s only exception is for people who have a physical or mental disability. People who fail to comply with this requirement would be ineligible for benefits for as long as a year.

SB 87 provides no funding to administer the community service programs or the extensive record-keeping that would be necessary. The bill also does not explain what would happen to recipients if enough community service positions could not be found.

Coleman asked about the capacity of DHR and the Alabama nonprofit community to meet the community service needs of so many people. “I am very concerned that for the last three or four years, we have been streamlining government, but now we are already adding a lot on to a streamlined staff at DHR,” she said. “And I understand that the final reporting is to the governor’s office. Can the governor’s office monitor this big a program?”

Taylor defended his proposal. “I think that it is worth the investment by DHR,” he said. “I think that it is disappointing that we have developed the mindset that community service is a punishment. We are doing this through the court system already [for people convicted of crimes]. The goal is to give [DHR] the flexibility, to give them the authority to design a program.”

Coleman raised concerns about screening community service workers to be placed in schools and nonprofits serving children, seniors and the disabled. “I supervised volunteers for the Red Cross, and I had to tell the judge there were some types I didn’t want,” she said. “It’s opening up a huge liability. The monitoring is hard. You don’t have control [over the volunteers].”

After the debate, Taylor asked the committee to carry over his bill to allow time for revisions. The members agreed.

Panel backs bills to limit use of TANF benefits, impose job search requirements

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored a pair of bills designed to tighten TANF eligibility and restrict how recipients can use the benefits. The Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee approved both Wednesday.

SB 116 would bar the use of EBT cards in liquor stores and bars, casinos, tattoo parlors, and adult entertainment establishments. Orr said federal law requires states to put such prohibitions in place this year. It also would forbid using TANF benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco and create penalties for recipients and merchants who make or accept TANF payments for prohibited purchases.

Orr also sponsored SB 115, which would require that the income and resources of a TANF applicant’s husband, wife or “cohabiting partner” be counted in determining eligibility, even if that person does not support the children and is not legally required to do so.(Actual money received from another person is already counted under TANF rules.)

That provision would restore the so-called “man-in-the-house” rule that often led welfare eligibility workers to visit recipients’ homes to check for the presence of a romantic partner. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 overturned the rule under the program that preceded TANF. Kansas is now the only state with this rule under TANF.

SB 115 would require someone signing up for TANF to apply for at least three jobs before being approved and continue to apply for three jobs per week to stay on TANF. The provision would apply even in rural communities with few employers. Under the bill, any TANF recipient who voluntarily quits a job or declines one without good cause would be barred from receiving future assistance for an indeterminate amount of time.

Orr pointed to Pennsylvania to support his bill. He said the state saw a 70 percent disapproval rate for TANF benefits after a similar law’s passage. “If they haven’t looked for a job yet, why should we reward them with TANF benefits?” Orr asked. “My presumption would be that a majority [in Pennsylvania] found jobs before they got benefits. That’s my speculation. I don’t know.”

Advocates for low-income people in Pennsylvania contend that complex rules, lack of transportation and child care, and bureaucratic delays were responsible for the decline in the state’s TANF rates. They say the state’s high denial rates have left many children and families in greater poverty.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 23, 2014.

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