The chance to pick up additional hours or overtime at work, take a promotion or accept more pay can put some Nebraskans and their families into a difficult situation.
Accepting even as little as an extra dollar more per hour can push workers out of eligibility for federal assistance programs such as the Child Care Subsidy and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but leave them unable to cover all of their family’s expenses.
Two bills — one (LB1049) introduced by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz last week and another (LB255) brought by Omaha Sen. John McCollister last year — would raise eligibility levels for both programs to help Nebraskans transition to better work.
Bolz said her bill would help retain “20- to 30-somethings” in Nebraska and allow them to develop new skills to fill jobs in health care, technology and other workforce needs in the state.
“Child care assistance is an essential part of this puzzle,” Bolz said. But Nebraska’s current eligibility level ranks among the lowest in the nation, meaning it can be hard for working families to qualify for help.
“We don’t afford families the opportunity to access child care assistance while they pursue their careers. It’s backwards,” she said. “In systems like scholarship programs or grants for the arts, people are rewarded for their hard work and merit. In systems like child care and food assistance, they are punished for getting ahead.”
Her bill would raise the qualifying family income from 125% to 150% of the federal poverty level beginning in 2021-22, allowing more families to access child care assistance, paying for the program for five years out of excess federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds.
McCollister’s bill would similarly raise the SNAP eligibility level from 130% to 140% of the federal poverty level, which he said would allow families to continue to be food-secure and be able to afford child care.
Nebraska’s share of the increase would be just half of the administrative costs, or about $150,000 annually, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
“We want to reward work and forward momentum,” McCollister said.
On average in 2017, the federal SNAP provided $117 per month for each household member in Nebraska, or about $1.25 per meal. About 176,000 Nebraskans accessed the program in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
The benefits provided to Nebraskans also translated into $241 million in economic activity in the state, McCollister said.
Both bills have the backing of the Lincoln, Omaha and Nebraska chambers of commerce.
Leslie Andersen, CEO of the Bank of Bennington and a member of the Omaha Chamber board, said employers are well aware of the “benefits cliff” that can keep their employees from advancing.
“Employees are offered promotions, pay increases and additional hours, and some employees are faced with very difficult situations,” she said. “Take the promotion, take the pay increase, move from part-time to full-time and lose the assistance that is helping them get by.”
Extending assistance to workers transitioning into better jobs and careers in the state’s economy would have a long-term benefit, Andersen added, both in higher earnings for those families that translate into new opportunities, as well as increased income and sales tax revenue for the state.
Diane Temme Stinton, chief administrative officer of TMCO Inc. in Lincoln, said she once saw employment opportunities as the best assistance program for the underemployed.
“As an employer, it’s easy to assume you’ve given someone an opportunity to be self-reliant without the need for extra benefits,” she said. “However, these assumptions also point to common blind spots concerning the reality of many family’s situations.”
One merit-pay increase could inadvertently cause a bigger financial burden on a family by causing a loss of benefits, Temme Stinton added: “Proverbially, this is two steps forward and three steps back for the employee.”
Bolz said both the Child Care Subsidy and SNAP benefits should be geared toward helping families move ahead, while also improving Nebraska’s workforce.
“I think we all have a responsibility to grow our workforce and grow our economy,” she said.
Among other legislation introduced Tuesday:
MAIL-IN ELECTION REQUIREMENTS: Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon introduced a bill (LB1055) that would allow counties with fewer than 10,000 residents to apply to hold an all-mail election but would require those counties to keep open at least one polling location at the office of the county clerk on Election Day.
HEALTH CARE INFORMATION: The Population Health Information Act (LB1058) introduced by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard would gather aggregate information from health care facilities in Nebraska to provide information about the access to and quality of health care in the state.
PROTECTED HAIRSTYLES: Employers could not discriminate against an employee based upon their race, ancestry, ethnicity or hairstyle, under a bill (LB1060) brought by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh.
REENTRY PROGRAMS: Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop introduced a bill (LB1062) allowing the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to contract with residential reentry programs in counties to prepare parole-eligible inmates or inmates within 12 months of their mandatory discharge for reentry.
RAISE SMOKING AGE TO 21: Sen. Tom Briese of Albion sponsored a bill (LB1064) to make it illegal to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, bringing Nebraska in line with federal law.
FLOOD PROTECTION: Natural resource districts — excluding those in Lincoln and Omaha — could, by a two-thirds majority vote of the board, issue bonds and levy a property tax to pay for flood protection projects, under a bill (LB1072) by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango.
REPORT GROOMING: Lathrop also introduced a bill (LB1080) to require school districts to adopt policies to report suspected grooming by employees of current or former students for sexual activity and outline which communication systems are appropriate for teachers and students to communicate.
UNMC FUNDING: Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward introduced a bill (LB1084) with 26 co-sponsors that would set aside $300 million in funding for the University of Nebraska Medical Center if the university secured $300 million in private funding for a proposed $2.6 billion research and treatment tower.
FAFSA REQUIREMENT: All Nebraska high school students would be required to complete the Free Application for Financial Student Aid, or FAFSA, before they could graduate, under a bill (LB1089) from Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas.
FACIAL RECOGNITION: Vargas also brought a bill (LB1091) barring government agencies in Nebraska from obtaining or using facial-recognition technology and making any data collected from facial surveillance inadmissible as evidence in a trial.