The Spokane senator who represents the poorest district in the state wants to tighten the main cash supply for many of his constituents.
State Sen. John Moyer supports a five-year lifetime limit for welfare. He also wants to stop spending more money for babies born to mothers already on welfare.
Moyer realizes his agenda could cost him support in central Spokane’s poverty-laced 3rd Legislative District when he seeks re-election in November.
“If they don’t like it, they can vote me out,” the Republican said Monday.
About two of every five people in the 3rd District - which covers Spokane’s downtown core and its East Central and West Central neighborhoods - receive public assistance.
About 20,000 of Moyer’s constituents receive a total of $30 million in welfare each year.
Spokane welfare recipients and advocates for the poor say the grandfatherly Moyer is popular but no longer is considered sympathetic.
“I like (Moyer) a lot,” said Morton Alexander of the Fair Budget Action Campaign, an advocacy group for the poor. “But I can’t let that get in the way of criticizing him for jumping on the bandwagon of what legislators see as the pop solutions for welfare.”
The welfare bill Moyer supports has passed the Senate. The House soon will consider a similar, tougher bill that limits people to 3-1/2 years of welfare checks in their lifetimes.
Moyer and many of his colleagues call the reforms overdue improvements for a welfare system that fails to encourage people to get jobs.
“I’m not trying to get tough on anybody,” Moyer said, noting the reforms apply only to people who can work. “I understand that it’s difficult. I also want (welfare recipients) to understand that if we work together, we can make a dent in this thing.”
Opponents of the Republican-led welfare reforms see them as punishing the poor, not the lazy.
Mark McDermott, director of the state’s welfare program, predicts the House and Senate proposals would increase child poverty in Spokane and throughout Eastern Washington and also create a dogfight for minimum-wage jobs.
He points to a recent study for the state Department of Social and Health Services that shows the need for welfare has increased the most in rural areas where unemployment is high.
McDermott also said a new state program called JOBS already forces welfare recipients to prepare for work and encourages them to get off public money.
“We believe the system is working, but we don’t want to pretend there’s a job for everybody,” he said.
McDermott said welfare time limits are not fair to children. “What do you do if a mother is trying hard and can’t find a job?” he asked. “You cut her off?”
Rep. Suzette Cook, R-Kent, predicts her welfare reform bill will pass the House within the next week.
If so, the House and Senate will get together and craft a joint bill to send to Gov. Mike Lowry. He has vowed to veto any time limits.
Cook noted that while both reform proposals set time limits, the state would continue to pay for health insurance and food stamps if people don’t get jobs.
Cook said she believes her legislation forces people to face economic realities. “They will have to look around and go where the jobs are.”
Moyer said he doesn’t relish telling constituents to move in order to find work, but agreed it’s something they may need to consider.
He wants to create a community network of businesses and people to find and create jobs for people getting off welfare. He has other ideas too, which he admits are idealistic.
“What if we could get every church in Spokane to build a house every year and adopt a family to help them buy it?” he asked.
Nobody has announced plans to challenge Moyer for his Senate seat. But constituent Sarah Miller expects the race to be close, no matter who takes him on.
“Up until real recently (Moyer) was real positive about low-income people,” said Miller, a welfare recipient and graduate student at Eastern Washington University.
“About a year ago, he shifted and started going along the hard-core Republican Party lines…. I’ve always really liked him, but he does work for the Republican Party.”
Moyer may believe he doesn’t have to appease his impoverished constituents to get re-elected, Miller said.
“The general attitude is poor people don’t vote,” she said.
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