OKLAHOMA CITY - Food stamp recipients between the ages of 18 and 50 without children would be required to work at least 20 hours per week under a bill that a Senate panel backed Monday despite Democrats' concerns that it would further erode the safety net for low-income Oklahomans.
The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services voted 6-2 for the bill by House Speaker T.W. Shannon. It now heads to the full Senate.
"When you are asking of your friends and neighbors for assistance with your needs, it seems like it is perfectly reasonable request for us to ask that you're contributing to that also be working at least 20 hours per week," said Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, the Senate sponsor of the bill.
The bill does not apply to the disabled or to food stamp recipients who care for children.
Oklahoma had a similar work requirement in place for years, but the federal government allowed states to suspend the requirement beginning in 2009 as a result of growing unemployment rates, according to Mark Beutler, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services. Beutler said the current waiver is scheduled to expire at the end of September, before the bill is scheduled to take effect, meaning the measure would ultimately have no effect.
The bill initially would have required recipients to spend 35 hours a week working or seeking employment, but Shannon scaled back that requirement.
Another one of Shannon's bills approved by the committee on Monday would direct the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, which is a program within the DHS, to divert a portion of its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, funding to pay for a statewide public service announcement campaign in support of marriage.
Holt said the campaign would be in keeping with the mission of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, which is to promote strong marriages as a way to keep families out of poverty.
"If somehow we can, with a small amount of money, influence society in a positive way where people don't have to live their lives as single parents and raising their kids that way, I don't think that's a negative outcome," Holt said.
But Sen. Connie Johnson, who opposed both measures, said she's concerned Republican lawmakers are eroding critical state programs that help the needy.
"Everybody, potentially, gets down on their luck at some point, and that's why these programs are in place, as a safety net," said Johnson, D-Oklahoma City. "We continue to chip away at these programs and therefore deplete the safety net, you have to wonder what that's all about. What is supposed to happen to these people? Who is supposed to care?"
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