New rules proposed for public aid in Mississippi

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — People who receive public assistance would be subject to random testing for drugs or nicotine and would have to perform community service under new requirements being considered by Mississippi lawmakers.

Officials say some ideas are already being carried out, while others could be blocked by federal regulations.

One bill would require people on public assistance to do 20 hours a week of community service.

Another says food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, could be spent only on healthful foods or beverages. The Mississippi Department of Human Services says, however, that the state can’t put such restrictions on SNAP, which is fully funded by federal dollars.

Other bills propose random drug testing of people applying for public aid. A federal judge last fall issued a temporary injunction blocking Florida’s 2011 law that required drug testing as a condition for receiving welfare.

The Mississippi DHS already requires adult welfare recipients who are capable of working to perform 20 or 40 hours a week of work, school or community service, said Charlie Smith, a former lawmaker who works as legislative liaison for the agency. He said DHS moved to that policy about six months ago for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF — the aid commonly called welfare.

The number of hours required depends on the age of a TANF recipient’s dependents. Those with younger children have shorter hours.

The Republican sponsors of the community service bill, Sens. Nancy Adams Collins of Tupelo and John Polk of Hattiesburg, said in separate interviews that they believe such service would help people develop job skills and make contacts that could help them find jobs to become self-sufficient.

“I worked in the welfare office in the Louisiana Delta when I was young. I was a case worker,” Collins said. “I have seen sometimes a generational cycle — the government will give a handout but not a hand up in order to encourage them to use their gifts and abilities.”

Polk, who used to run his family’s sausage company, said he believes doing volunteer work helps people realize they can help others.

“For some people welfare, unfortunately, has become a way of life, for whatever reason,” Polk said. “Maybe this will help them on understanding a career track, maybe they’ll have more self-esteem.”

Smith said putting a 20-hour community service requirement into law could diminish the current requirements for work, school or volunteer work — the opposite of what the senators intend.

Rims Barber, who has lobbied for generations on behalf of the poor, said he believes the bill plays on worn-out stereotypes about the needy being lazy.

“It’s the old ‘welfare queen’ crap,” Barber said. “I call it the ’20 hours of slavery’ bill.”

The bill, in its current form, would not exempt people because of age or physical impairment, although Collins and Polk said those changes could be made. It also does not specify which types of public assistance would prompt the community service requirement, meaning it could cover a wide range of programs, including Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for families with young children. A significant number of Medicaid recipients are in nursing homes and others have long-term illnesses.

Jackson resident Scott M. Crawford, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, said he enjoys doing volunteer work but he has good days and bad days with MS. Although he is not on Medicaid, he said some people with disabilities might find it difficult to commit 20 hours a week, even if their health coverage depended on it.

“I wonder exactly how this proposed bill would protect the dignity of people, who, through no fault of their own, cannot contribute the prescribed 20 hours,” Crawford, 46, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Precisely how are those decisions to be made, and what administrative costs will there be trying to enforce this otherwise well-intentioned law? The people who could — but need to be ‘forced’ to — volunteer, how effective will they actually be to the organizations they are assigned to serve?

“My friends and I in the disability community will continue to volunteer our time and energy toward making our world a better place,” he said. “We do not need a law to enforce what to us is a core value.”

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and its unemployment rate has long been higher than the national average.

Smith said about 295,000 households, or 650,000 people, receive SNAP benefits. He said about 12,000 households are enrolled in TANF, and that rate has fluctuated between 11,000 and 12,000 the past three or four years.

About one-fourth of Mississippi’s 2.9 million residents are enrolled in Medicaid.

One bill filed by Republican Sen. Merle Flowers of Southaven would require Medicaid recipients to re-enroll every six months instead of once a year. Another would ban Medicaid recipients from having vanity car tags, which in many cases cost an extra $50 a year.

A bill filed by Republican Sens. Chris McDaniel of Laurel and Michael Watson of Pascagoula would require Medicaid recipients to be subject to random testing for nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco.

Medicaid spokesman Francis Rullan would not say Friday whether leaders of the program are taking a position on any of the bills filed so far that could affect Medicaid recipients.

“Obviously many good people recognize the need for Medicaid reform and it would be premature to comment on the viability of any proposed legislation at this time,” Rullan said. “Further, Governor (Phil) Bryant has asked us to study various ways to meaningfully reform our Medicaid program. We will honor his request and will report our recommendations to him in March.”

____

The bills are Senate Bills 2224, 2293, 2191, 2221, 2005, 2038 and 2272.