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GOP's "Work First" Welfare Reform Plan Faces Democratic Scrutiny

March 23, 1998
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - This year's only comprehensive welfare reform bill continued its tough trek through the legislative process Monday.

Rep. Vicki Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, and other welfare House subcommittee members spent almost three hours working out the wrinkles in the GOP's 21-page "Work First" reform plan, with still more ironing to come soon.

Wilson said she wants to see more flexibility in the Republican proposal, which she calls nearly a "mirror" of the 1996 federal reform plan.

"If we have our own regulations, then we can tailor it to the priorities and wishes of the people in the state rather than being totally bound by Federal regulations," Wilson said.

If Wilson and other Democrats want more breathing room for bringing welfare recipients to work, they may have to pass a state plan that provides it. According to Tom Jones, a Social Services associate director, the state is currently in compliance with the binding federal rules Wilson mentioned.

Meanwhile the Republican proposal attempts to bring the not-so-flexible Federal guidelines to Missouri's books.

"There's some compliance issues in the federal legislation that certain members of the General Assembly feel need to be in state law," Jones said.

One example is the exact definition of "work activity," crucial for execution of the law:

* Federal reform limits recipients to five years lifetime without engagement in a work activity.

* The GOP Work First plan requires that a recipient "apply for or engage in" such an activity the very day they apply for benefits.

Wilson said education and training should remain an important part of that definition, so that recipients will have the opportunity to get better jobs as they continue to join the work force.

"A minimum wage job may not be enough to keep people from being dependent in the future," she said. "Do we just want to move people into subsistence existence or do we want to make them into taxpayers?"