Tensions grew late in Thursday’s subcommittee on Senate Study Bill 1108. It’s a workfare requirement for people who are on SNAP.

“What this bill really does, because I think it’s important for people to understand how narrow this is in its scope, the bill’s purpose is to refer parents who have children of school age six and above to be referred to their workforce development programs or the Promise Jobs Program which they’re already probably under through the Family Investment agreement signed if they are on TANF,” said Karla Fultz McHenry of Opportunity Solutions Project. “It only pertains to food stamps — parents on food stamps with children school-age.”

Democrat Sen. Tony Bisignano quickly asked how it would be applied to homeschool families.

“If they homeschool they don’t have to do any workfare,” McHenry said. “Those are things reviewed by the department and looked at possible solutions. Nobody is trying to say they have to send their kids to school when they homeschool. That’s not our intent.”

Workfare is a big umbrella, McHenry said.

Dave Stone of United Way of Central Iowa said his group is against the bill because they believe workfare is an outdated model.

“(It) does not work in leading families to self sufficiency,” Stone said. “We want to offer you an alternative.”

Stone distributed a report to the senators that recommended a SNAP employment and training program. There’s an option, Stone said, for a state-level food assistance employment training program. He said only 337 people in Iowa participated last year.

Stone’s program through the United Way in partnership with the Des Moines Community College system has more than 1,000 people receiving free education and training to get their high school diploma.

“My program is serving three or four times more than what the state is doing,” Stone said. “If we can expand this program to every community college in the state as well as nonprofits, we can specifically target the SNAP population so they can gain the skills they need for better paying jobs and not need public assistance as much.”

Sen. Zach Whiting asked Stone if this federal program is being utilized.

“When former Gov. (Tom) Vilsack was Sec. Vilsack he used to call my boss and say we’re leaving millions of dollars at the federal level,” Stone said. “Our neighbors tot he north went from $1 million to $10 million in targeted dollars. They’re federal dollars, I understand the concerns they’re still taxpayer dollars, but we leave it on the table.”

Sen. Jason Schultz joked that he’s given up on the federal government’s spending problem.

“They can spend whatever they heck they want,” he said. “If it helps Iowa… This is good stuff. Now we’re getting somewhere, aren’t we?”

That question was directed at Sen. Bisignano.

The program Stone suggested falls under the workfare umbrella. It’s likely work will be done on an amendment to address the bill.

Immediately after it seemed progress was being made, Democrat Sen. Joe Bolkcom spoke. Bolkcom was not a member of the subcommittee, just attending the subcommittee.

“This his a bill that’s a solution in search of a problem,” Bolkcom said. “We have a lobbyist who has a client who wants a contract with the state of Iowa to harrass people that aren’t qualified for food stamps. The chair who brought this bill hardly understands the details of the bill.”

Schultz pointed out the bill isn’t a solution for one company that wants a contract since he had just embraced the proposal from Stone.

The subcommittee continued from there.

Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference had concerns with the language of the bill, as did many people who spoke after him.

MaryNelle Trefz of the Child and Family Policy Center opposed the bill.

“A lot of our heads are spinning because this bill has kind of evolved and new information has been shared,” she said.

Chaney Yeast of Blank Children’s Hospital also spoke against the bill.

“When you talk about food and security and your cutting food benefits to children — I understand the bill addresses the parent, but that impacts the children,” she said. “You’re talking about kids who are hungry and can’t focus in school, if they can even get to school, they’re fatigued and can’t concentrate. That will impact our future economic prosperity.”

Matthew Covington of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund opposed the bill.

“I’m still quite a bit confused at this bill,” he said. “I think we need a lot of clarification. Is it just that someone needs to be referred to something and that’s it or is it a mechanism and we’ll actually take peoples food away from them if they don’t check out an agency? Are we forcing them to work? We have a lot of concerns that are not clear in a half page bill. It’s very sparse.”

A member of CCI spoke next stating the need for an increase in the minimum wage. Rita Carter of the Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church had concerns as well, saying everyone has worth and the bill made it seem folks in poverty are less than the rest of the people who are employed.

Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity offered a rare voice of support.

“With the discussion here today there’s probably a lot of opportunity to continues to refine the conceptions and clarify some definitions,” he said. “What we’re trying to accomplish is not ignore the fact peoples’ needs but to understand resources of the state are limited. Those resources should be preserved for those who actually need them and make sure at hte same time we’re encouraging folks to move back towards self sufficiency. There’s a world of nonprofits like United Way out there trying to accomplish that. It’s not an either or scenario, but to say yes, we will meet the immediate need, but we want to address it so an immediate need is not a long-term need as well.”

Charlie Wishman of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO encouraged the legislators to work with Stone if the bill moves forward. But he voiced a desire to have a conversation about the minimum wage.

Jack Reardon, a member of CCI, delivered fiery testimony.

“I’m personally opposed, but what’s really upsetting is that I see people here today talking so casually and laughing about the way my family and I are able to survive with such a low minimum wage we have here in Iowa,” Reardon said. “The other day my mom’s car broke down and it’s going to cost her $600 to fix it. That puts us on the brink of financial collapse. People like you (pointing to Sen. Schultz) come in and introduce legislation to take money from my family. It makes me physically sick. And that’s it.”

Whiting credited those who opposed the legislation but brought solutions to the table.

“In five weeks I’ve had two groups of people come talk about issues — people who want to complain and people who want to complain but come with a solution,” he said. “Thank you for coming with a solution (directed toward Stone). There’s nothing wrong with conversation and sharing passion and sharing concerns, but I don’t think it’s very constructive to the conversation to merely complain absent coming with solutions.

“I know we’ll have a series of these hearings on a number of different topics. I would encourage you to take that approach. If you don’t like (a bill), that’s fine, tell me how we could make it better; don’t just tell me how we shouldn’t do it. Let’s make sure this is a discussion and not just a dump-on.”

A third CCI member asked for permission to speak and asked if they’d make sure people of color would be at the table for that discussion.

“That’s part of the problem here in Iowa,” he said. “We want to act like we’re not — the bigotry doesn’t happen here. Bigotry is alive and well in here — in this building. To try to act like it doesn’t happen, it’s not real — it’s real. Folks up here need to know that it’s real. It’s something us as people of color, we deal with it all the time on a daily basis.”

Whiting explained that the man was at the table — that the subcommittee process is the table.

The bill was signed out of subcommittee.

Jacob Hall

Author: Jacob Hall