With the legislative clock ticking, there has been plenty of talk about the major investments lawmakers could make to improve life in Texas. But there are also a host of cost-effective and important changes that leaders can make to state programs so more hard-working Texans can reach their full potential.
Texas has a handful of benefit programs in place to provide food and cash assistance to help struggling Texans contribute to the state’s economy and support their families. These programs mainly benefit very low-income families with children and have strict eligibility requirements including that parents who can work do so or receive job training. These cornerstone programs exist not just out of charity but because reliable access to them can help stabilize struggling households, allowing them to meet their most basic needs while working toward self-sufficiency.
Despite the important role these programs can play in helping Texans achieve financial security, they are not serving all of those who could benefit due to outdated, counterproductive restrictions that legislators should remove.
One important restriction that needs to end is the lifetime ban on drug offenders receiving benefits. If we want drug offenders to re-enter society, find jobs and support their children, then denying help paying for food when they are struggling is the wrong way to go. Texas would be better served by providing food assistance — and the job training that goes with it — to applicants with a drug conviction so that they don’t become a financial burden to their families and can provide for their children.
Removing “asset tests” would be another good move for lawmakers in the coming weeks. Currently, when Texans apply for food or cash assistance, they must report not just their income but all of their assets like savings accounts and cars before they can qualify for help. But these limits are outdated and harmful, and most other states have removed them. Why? First, because if you want to be financially secure you have to save for emergencies. Asset tests keep families from gaining independence because they stop them from building the cushion they need to achieve financial security.
And this is Texas. There aren’t many places in this state where someone can hold down a job without a reliable car. So why should having a car — which helps you find and keep a job — disqualify you from getting help feeding your kids when you are in crisis?
Finally, one of the most important steps legislators can take is to support the grandparents and relatives who step up to take care of children whose parents cannot. Kids do better with their families than in foster care, and keeping kids out of state custody saves Texas money.
Right now grandparents who step up to take in their grandchildren before Child Protective Services are called are not eligible for the same support as foster parents after a child is removed from a home.
Instead of abandoning these grandparents and the vulnerable children they are struggling to support, lawmakers should remove the asset test for cash assistance and raise the benefit paid to families caring for multiple children.
Our public officials have a choice at this critical point in the legislative session. They can pursue bills that make it harder for people in need, or they can work to create the best state possible for hard-working Texans and their families.
This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on May 5, 2015.