Missouri Taketh Away: Missouri Has Aggressively Dismantled its Social Safety Net

What kind of place is Missouri? Over the last two decades it has become a place that’s harder on people when they need help and provides less assistance to people trying to climb out of poverty. State policy has become less and less forgiving if you lose a job or have a child without a middle-class income. Rather than moving to provide a more secure and predictable social safety net, Missouri has reduced programs across the board that help people during periods when they are under financial strain. After 20 years of this trend, the lack of investment in people is showing. Today a greater percentage of Missouri residents and children live in poverty than did in 1996.

The situation within the St. Louis region mirrors the rest of the state but is even more acute. Missouri hasn’t just lost its social safety net, it also has generally anti-urban polices. The situation the City of St. Louis faces with regards to our state government is about as bad as it gets in the United States. Missouri’s policies promote urban failure, and they are succeeding. Much of the struggle faced by the City of St. Louis is a direct result of decades of state policy that ignores or is openly hostile to the needs of urban areas. Cities need supportive states. St. Louis has the opposite.

 Below is a summary of policy changes enacted in the last two decades that have reduced benefits to low income residents or created additional challenges for urban areas in Missouri.

Medicaid: Missouri has some of the lowest income limits for adults to qualify for Medicaid. As a result, many adults with low incomes are unable to afford health insurance. 13% of adults under 65 are uninsured. Over 600,000 Missouri residents have no health insurance. Parents with a child are ineligible for Medicaid if they earn just $4,571 a year, and adults without children are ineligible. Many adults in Missouri working near minimum wage are not allowed to enroll in Medicaid and obviously cannot afford to buy their own health insurance. Missouri is among 14 states that did not expand Medicaid to cover more adults under the Affordable Care Act. Most states offer Medicaid to single adults making less than $16,753 and adults with a child up to $28,676.

TANF: (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) After President Bill Clinton signed the “Welfare Reform Act” of 1996, states had greatly expanded flexibility in how to use block grant funds to assist very low income families. Over time much less of that funding is being delivered as direct financial assistance to parents. Fewer families are receiving assistance, and the families that get assistance receive less than they would have in the past. Today only 20% of families with children in poverty are receiving TANF assistance in Missouri. Nationally about 2/3rds of families that would have been eligible prior to the 1996 are no longer eligible. The result is more families with children have less income security and a higher probability of homelessness, frequent housing relocations, and food insecurity.

Unemployment Insurance: Missouri has hands down one of the worst unemployment insurance benefits in the nation. While most states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, Missouri offers only 13 weeks. Missouri also offers one of the lowest weekly unemployment benefits (45th of 50), at only $320 a week. The Missouri Legislature cut the unemployment benefit from 20 weeks to 13 weeks in 2018. As recently as 2010 Missouri offered up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, in line with most states.

Public Transportation: Missouri provides almost no funding for public transportation. Metro/Bi-State is the largest transit agency in Missouri by far, with an annual budget of over $250M. The state of Missouri provides less than $500,000 a year, or far less than 1% of their budget. About 20 states provide meaningful levels of transit funding to local agencies. Missouri provides virtually nothing. The Metrolink and Metro Bus systems are paid for with a combination of local and federal funding, but absent the missing link of state funding. St. Louis area residents fill the funding gap, with some of the country’s highest sales tax rates. With a comparable population The Twin Cities of Minneapolis / St. Paul Minnesota have roughly twice the transit ridership of St. Louis, because the state of Minnesota has made notable investments in the region’s transit system over the last two decades.

Gun Laws: As recently as 2003 Missouri still had a variety of gun laws and regulations aimed at reducing the proliferation of guns into almost every aspect of society and public space. Those laws included background checks before gun purchases and a comprehensive ban on concealed carry throughout the state. Today Missouri has a permissive “Stand Your Ground” law without an obligation to retreat in a dangerous situation, and “permitless” concealed carry for gun owners as young as 19. Between the passage of the first concealed carry law in 2003 and 2017, Missouri’s homicide rate has nearly doubled, from 5.0 homicides per 100,000 to 9.8 homicides per 100,000 people.

Violent Crime: Missouri has the second highest statewide homicide rate in the United States. While states generally do little direct intervention in terms of local law enforcement, Missouri has a radically underpaid and inadequate re-entry and probation system. Missouri incarcerates an above average number of juvenile offenders and has an above average recidivism rate, indications that our state has a poor record of rehabilitation for people with criminal convictions.

School Funding: After years of failing to meet legal commitments for state funding of local school districts, in 2016 Missouri Legislators lowered the bar and reduced the level of funding required. Missouri scores fairly low on equity of per pupil funding between high and low income districts, and low on equity between districts with larger non-white populations. Missouri ranks 35th in per pupil spending for pre-K programs.

Public Defenders: The chronic under-funding of Missouri’s public defender system has continued under both Republican and Democratic Governors. Today only Mississippi spends less per person on public defenders than Missouri does. Average spending on a public defender system is 50% to 200% higher in every Midwestern state. The outcome is longer waits for the accused to get to trial, while frequently incarcerated in county level jail systems. Longer waits drive up costs for cities like St. Louis, and delays serve both the accused and victims of crime poorly.

In summary, Missouri has “successfully” dismantled its social safety net. Across virtually every category, Missouri does less, and does it less well, than most other states. The Missouri of 2019 is doing less than the Missouri of the mid-1990’s to assist our lowest income residents and children. Low-income residents in Missouri live closer to desperation than those in other states. Over this period, both crime and poverty have increased within the state. The state’s largest urban area and economic engine, St. Louis, is obviously struggling with the effects of hostile state policies. When, how are we going to change course?