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Benefits Cliffs in Texas

In Texas, the benefits cliff is a situation where individuals who are eligible for government benefits can lose those benefits if they earn even a slightly higher income. Sources of Texas’s benefits cliffs include Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and childcare subsidies. 

Overview of Texas’s Benefits Cliffs Challenge

Benefits cliffs occur in Texas because the income eligibility requirements for these programs can be quite rigid, and a small increase in income can push individuals above the eligibility threshold, resulting in a sudden loss of benefits.

For example, a family receiving Medicaid in Texas could lose their benefits if their income exceeds 138% of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $36,000 per year for a family of four. Similarly, a single parent receiving childcare subsidies could lose those benefits if their income exceeds 85% of the state median income, which is approximately $43,000 per year.

This benefits cliff discourages individuals from increasing their income because they may be better off financially if they earn less and continue to receive benefits. This can create a cycle of poverty, where individuals are trapped in low-paying jobs and unable to access the resources they need to improve their economic situation.

Efforts to address the benefits cliff in Texas include proposals to phase out benefits gradually as individuals earn more income, rather than cutting them off abruptly at a specific income threshold. The aim of such proposals is to offer individuals a more gradual transition off government assistance so that they can increase their income without fear of hardship. 

Business Impact of Texas Benefits Cliffs 

While there is limited research on the specific impacts of benefits cliffs on employers in Texas, it is widely recognized that these cliffs can create challenges for both employees and employers.

Texas Cliffs and Employee Turnover

One way that benefits cliffs can impact employers is by contributing to high rates of employee turnover. When employees lose their government benefits due to a slight increase in income, they need to seek new employment that offers higher wages and benefits to make up for the loss. For employers, this situation creates a revolving door of employees, which can increase an employer’s cost to recruit, train, and make up for lost productivity. 

Texas Cliffs and Retention of Skilled Workers

Benefits cliffs hamper employers from retaining skilled and experienced employees. If employees are forced to leave their job to maintain their government benefits, employers may struggle to replace them with similarly skilled workers. As a result, employers struggle with reduced productivity, increased training costs, and potential disruptions to the continuity of work.

Texas Cliffs and Worker Productivity

Benefits cliffs may also contribute to a less productive workforce in general. If employees are unable to access necessary benefits like healthcare, food assistance, or childcare, they may struggle with health issues, hunger, or caregiving responsibilities that negatively impact their job performance.

Texas Cliffs and Employee Shortages

In Texas, policymakers and advocates have raised concerns that benefits cliffs may be contributing to a shortage of qualified workers in certain industries, such as healthcare and education. These sectors are particularly affected by the benefits cliffs because they tend to have low to moderate wages and offer benefits that are subject to eligibility requirements.

Policy Approaches to Texas Benefits Cliffs

Welfare reform in Texas has been an ongoing process since the 1990s. Reforms have focused on reducing the state's reliance on government assistance programs and promoting self-sufficiency among beneficiaries.

Overview of Texas’s Welfare Reform Efforts

In 1996, the federal government passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which required states to implement work requirements and time limits for welfare recipients. Texas responded by implementing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides cash assistance to families in need for a limited time while requiring them to participate in work-related activities.

Since then, Texas has made several changes to its welfare system, including:

  • Imposing stricter work requirements and time limits on TANF recipients.
  • Providing incentives for TANF recipients to complete job training programs and find employment.
  • Implementing a program called Texas Rising Star, which provides subsidized child care to low-income families while requiring child care providers to meet certain quality standards.
  • Combining several government assistance programs, including TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid, into a single program called the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System (TIERS).

While the state has seen some success in reducing the number of people receiving government assistance, critics argue that the system is still too complex and that many Texans are still struggling to make ends meet.

Policy Leaders Involved in Texas Welfare Reform 

There are several state and federal representatives in Texas who are working on welfare reform initiatives, including changes to the state's current benefits cliff policies. 

State Senator Angela Paxton: At the state level, Senator Paxton introduced a bill in the 2021 legislative session to address the benefits cliff by gradually reducing the amount of benefits that individuals would lose as they earn more income. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services but did not advance further.

State Representative James Talarico: Representative Talarico has advocated for welfare reform in the state, particularly in regards to expanding access to childcare subsidies. In 2021, he introduced a bill that would have increased funding for the state's child care subsidy program, which is currently subject to a benefits cliff.

U.S. Representative Michael Cloud: Representative Cloud co-sponsored the Welfare Benefit Reform and Alignment Commission (BRAC) Act, which would establish a commission to review and recommend changes to the country's welfare programs, including Medicaid and SNAP. The bill was introduced in 2019 but has not yet been passed into law.

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee: At the federal level in 2019, Representative Lee introduced the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which would have increased access to unemployment benefits for workers who are laid off due to corporate restructuring or outsourcing.

Overall, there is ongoing interest and discussion among state and federal representatives in Texas around welfare reform, including efforts to address the issue of benefits cliffs. However, as with any policy change, there are often competing interests and priorities that can make it challenging to enact meaningful reform. 

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