© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Iowa Senators Consider Proposals To Change Who Qualifies For Public Assistance

senate subcommittee meeting
Katarina Sostaric
Senators hear from lobbyists and stakeholders at the Iowa Capitol about proposals to change public assistance programs Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

Republican senators advanced three proposals and tabled one this week that would change eligibility requirements for public assistance programs.

Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig) chaired the three-member subcommittee meetings on each of the bills. The Opportunity Solutions Project, which is associated with a conservative think tank based in Florida, submitted the proposals.

“A lot of these bills are focused on the public general perception that there is a large fraud problem,” Schultz said. “But I’ve looked into it—I’m not sure there is.”

Public assistance oversight

Schultz and Sen. Zach Whiting (R-Spirit Lake) gave preliminary approval to a bill Wednesday evening that requires Iowans on public assistance programs to have their status verified at least every three months. According to Iowa Department of Human Services officials, that currently happens once or twice a year.

“We already spend quite a bit of time verifying all of the data that’s being asked and required,” said Jana Rhoads, a top DHS administrator. “We have to verify it through multiple sources.”

The proposal would require participants to submit documents and comply with information requests several times a year.

Laura Hessburg with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence said this would make it virtually impossible for some domestic violence survivors to get public assistance.

“Many times, they are fleeing in the middle of the night,” Hessburg said. “They’re taking their kids. They don’t have cash often. They don’t have their papers.”

Hessburg added she doesn’t know how officials would verify addresses for people who have to escape to confidential locations.

The bill would also allow DHS to contract with a private company to provide data to help the agency determine if people enrolled in food assistance, Medicaid, and other programs for low-income Iowans are still eligible.

Several stakeholders said they are concerned about the possibility of people who need public benefits getting kicked out of these programs. And some said they believe the cost of doing extra monitoring would be more than any savings from rooting out fraud.

A few groups said they want to ensure tax dollars aren’t wasted on people who don’t need help.

“We believe public assistance programs should be narrowly tailored to those who need them,” said Tyler Raygor with Americans for Prosperity. “And for those who don’t, we should be encouraging them to get back into the workforce.”

Food assistance requirements

Schultz and Whiting gave initial approval Thursday to two bills that would add requirements to qualify for food assistance, also known as SNAP benefits.

One would require those receiving SNAP benefits to cooperate with the state on paying child support.

The other would require some people to participate in job training or similar programs to be eligible for food assistance. It’s unclear who exactly this requirement would apply to, and what job programs would qualify.

Karla Fultz McHenry, a lobbyist for Opportunity Solutions Project, said it’s very narrowly tailored.

But Laural Clinton, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said this would hurt people who are already working and struggling to get by with low wages.

“And now you want to take their SNAP benefits away. So keep piling it on,” Clinton said. “Those aren’t solutions. Those are ways to punish people for being poor.”

Clinton said $7.25 an hour, the state’s minimum wage, is not enough to feed a family.

Advocates for children, low-income families and religious groups said they’re concerned that people who need public assistance would lose it under these proposals.

Medicaid work reporting requirements

Schultz tabled a proposal Thursday that would require some Medicaid recipients to work 20 hours per week. He said he will wait for more information from DHS because he wants to know how many people on Medicaid could be working and aren’t.

The bill applies to the Medicaid expansion population—about 170,000 Iowans, according to Iowa Medicaid Director Mike Randol. They have an income at the federal poverty level ($12,140 per year for a single person) or slightly higher.

Some advocates said that means, by definition, that population is already working.

“Then if we look at the small percentage who aren’t working, the vast majority of those are disabled, have an illness or are a caretaker themselves and that prevents them from working,” said Mary Nelle Trefz with the Child and Family Policy Center. “So we’re looking at a very small slice of the population.”

Danielle Oswald-Thole with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said it would hurt cancer patients and affect the ability to detect cancer early. She said many cancer patients are recovering from surgery, are sitting in rooms for hours getting infusions, are too nauseous to leave the bathroom, or have been told by doctors that they shouldn’t work.

“They are the people who would be kicked off the rolls, who some people would think able to work, but they’re not able to work,” Oswald-Thole said.

State officials would have to ask the federal government for a waiver to implement the work requirements.

“In America and in Iowa you need to do something in order to earn your keep,” Schultz said Thursday after a series of meetings on these proposals. “I think it’s fair to check to make sure people are doing what they can. If they can’t, we understand.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter