Poor judgement: Bills aimed at low-income Oklahomans move through state legislature

PoorPicA little over a month ago we alerted readers to a slew of bills targeting safety net assistance programs for the state’s poorest families and most vulnerable residents.  Some of those bills have been amended to be less draconian, some are now dormant for the session, and many are further on their way to becoming law.  At this point the bills we’ve been tracking aimed at low income Oklahomans can be divided into three categories:  bills that enact ‘ornamental’ but not real changes, bills that enact real changes but not exactly as advertised by proponents, and bills that are now dormant and off our radar.

‘Ornamental’ bills

While the authors and proponents of these bills tout them as bold measures to cut off undeserving recipients of public benefits or combat waste and abuse, the reality is these bills don’t enact major changes.

HB 1909 forgoes a temporary federal waiver, enacted during the recent recession, to extend food stamp benefits to able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) in counties with very high unemployment.  In reality, HB 1909 likely won’t change the state’s food stamp program at all.  It won’t take effect until October and Oklahoma almost certainly won’t be eligible to apply for the federal waiver by then because unemployment has already dipped below double digits in every county.

HB 1909 does make it appear as if the state is no longer offering food stamps to ABAWDs, but that just isn’t the case.  HB 1909 stipulates that it applies ‘except as otherwise provided by law’ and federal law does require the states to provide minimal benefits to some childless adults working at least 20 hours a week.  The author, House Speaker TW Shannon, hailed the bill in a press release as a ‘welfare reform’ that encourages responsibility and discourages dependency, but that’s more hyperbole than fact.

Similarly, SB 887 inserts redundant new language into existing state statute that already bars food stamp recipients from ‘transferring‘ or otherwise fraudulently using their benefit.  Also not new is language in the bill directing district attorneys to have defendants facing fraud charges sign ‘disqualification consent agreement’ (DCA) that block them from future access to the food stamp program.  DCAs are already used routinely by the state in food stamp fraud cases.  The bill does nothing new to reduce fraud or save taxpayers’ money.

SB 667 mirrors a recently enacted federal law which restricts the electronic distribution of public benefits through EBT cards at certain establishments (liquor stores, casinos).  The federal law does not require enacting legislation at the state level.  OKDHS is obligated to enforce the new federal law as enacted and their administration of EBT cards won’t be affected by SB 667 at all.

Last but not least, a bill that has already passed the Senate and the House, SB 456, requires county DHS offices to post signs in their waiting rooms encouraging people to report the ‘fraudulent acquisition and use of public assistance.’  States already spend more investigating reports of benefit fraud than what they recoup from valid reports of recipient fraud. If these signs result in an increase in fraud reporting, there’s no evidence it will save the state money and anecdotal evidence it might cost us more.

‘Red herring’ bills

These bills would enact substantive changes, but have implications beyond those outlined by proponents.

HB 1908 diverts ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ (TANF) funds to produce public service announcements promoting marriage among the general public.  TANF or ‘welfare’ is designed to support vulnerable and very low-income single parents and their children.  No estimate has been provided of how much these ad spots promoting marriage will cost or whether they work.

Evidence about the efficacy of ‘marriage promotion’ as a way to reduce poverty is mixed.  Evidence about the efficacy of PSAs is nonexistent.  Why would lawmakers take money from the state’s existing marriage counseling initiatives, which the state already funds to the tune of $2M in TANF dollars?  These services have already proven that they work to enhance relationships, improve parenting, and strengthen couples (yet do not improve families’ financial situations, which is worth noting).  

SB 959 attempts to dragoon law enforcement officers into human services record-keeping:

Upon the arrest of any person for a drug-related offense, the arresting peace officer shall ask the arrested person the following question: “Are you currently receiving public assistance, including, but not limited to, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF-formerly known as welfare), housing assistance or Medicaid?”. Responses to such questions shall be collected by the law enforcement agency and shall be made readily available to the Legislature upon request.

This bill imposes new rules around the questioning of suspects under arrest that are immaterial to the criminal investigation at hand.  It requires that law enforcement create a new data-gathering regime, capable of collecting, storing, and reporting information back to the legislature.  Yet it doesn’t provide any new funding or even basic guidelines for how this might be accomplished.  

Inactive bills

Finally, the bills listed below are now dormant pursuant to legislative rules and will not become law this session; click here for our previous post detailing these problematic proposals.

  • HB 2014: Exclude persons with a drug related felony from receiving SNAP or ‘food stamp’ benefits
  • HB 2017: Exclude low-income households who save up to $5,000 from food stamp eligibility


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.