Republicans pursue changes to public assistance eligibility
House lawmakers say workforce shortages are driving proposals
Iowa Republicans are again considering a proposal to change the state’s public assistance eligibility system, arguing the changes may improve the state’s workforce shortage.
House Speaker Pat Grassley pointed to remarks from Gov. Kim Reynolds last week, when she proposed changes to state unemployment benefits and stated that “the safety net has become a hammock.”
Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House lawmakers were reviewing Iowa’s existing policies including the “social safety net” as they addressed the workforce issue.
“We don’t want the government to be the reason why people feel they shouldn’t be entering the workforce,” Grassley said.
This week, the House Human Services committee took up a 2021 Senate proposal that would change the way the Department of Human Services determines, verifies and tracks eligibility for public assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said Democrats were “very concerned” by the proposal, which the House split into several parts for consideration.
“Assuming that people aren’t working because they just don’t want to work, or they’re taking public assistance because they’re lazy … is so, so unfair,” she said.
Democrats have maintained that issues of child care and the pandemic are driving forces behind Iowa’s workforce shortage, rather than excess state or federal assistance.
Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, also argued the state does not have an issue with fraud that justifies the changes.
“There’s not a big problem that this is looking to solve,” she said. “This is simply looking to demonize people who need some help.”
Republican Rep. Ann Meyer is advancing the bills through the Human Resources Committee. She told reporters Tuesday that the changes were necessary due to a high error rate for the Department of Human Services, pointing to a 2019 fine leveraged against the agency.
“We need to make sure that if people are eligible for the safety net, that they’re getting it,” she said. “And that people who are not eligible, we’re not spending tax dollars on them.”
DHS officials have responded that the error rate has already improved since 2019.
How did we get here?
The House created seven bills from a 2021 Senate proposal. Senate File 389 directed the Department of Human Services to create or purchase a new system to verify and track the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance, and it changed some requirements for Iowans applying for food stamps.
Sen. Jason Schultz, a leader on the proposal, said the changes would improve efficiency at the department.
“All we’re doing is trying to make the asset verification, the identification verification, their location, try to make sure that can be done efficiently as possible and as accurately as possible,” Schultz said in a 2021 subcommittee meeting on the bill.
Democrats opposed the proposal last year too, arguing the new system might make it more difficult for Iowans to access public assistance, or that a third-party vendor would result in people being wrongfully kicked out of their benefits.
“The more rigorous it is, the harder it is to sign up for, and I think it’s probably your intention,” said Sen. Liz Mathis in floor debate on the legislation.
House lawmakers never took up the bill. But Grassley said all proposals are under consideration going into this session.
“We need to entertain all ideas, regardless of whether we think they’re going to be signed by the governor or passed by the House or make it out of committee,” he said. “We need all of these bills on the table.”