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PHOENIX (AP) — Facing a $1 billion budget deficit, Arizona's Republican-led Legislature has reduced the lifetime limit for welfare recipients to the shortest window in the nation.
Low-income families on welfare will now have their benefits cut off after just 12 months.
As a result, the Arizona Department of Economic Security will drop at least 1,600 families — including more than 2,700 children — from the state's federally funded welfare program on July 1, 2016.
The cuts of at least $4 million reflect a prevailing mood among the lawmakers in control in Arizona that welfare, Medicaid and other public assistance programs are crutches that keep the poor from getting back on their feet and achieving their potential.
"I tell my kids all the time that the decisions we make have rewards or consequences, and if I don't ever let them face those consequences, they can't get back on the path to rewards," Republican Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said during debate on the budget. "As a society, we are encouraging people at times to make poor decisions and then we reward them."
Cutting off these benefits after just one year isn't fair, said Jessica Lopez, 23, who gave birth to her son while living in a domestic violence shelter and has struggled to hold onto jobs because she has dyslexia and didn't finish high school.
"We're all human," said Lopez, who got $133 per month for about a year until she qualified for a larger federal disability check. "Everybody has problems. Everybody is different. When people ask for help, we should be able to get it without having to be looked at wrong."
Most states impose a five-year limit on welfare benefits. Thirteen states limit it to two years or less, and Texas has a tiered time limit that can be as little as 12 months but allows children to continue to receive funding even after the parents have been cut, welfare policy analyst Liz Schott said.
Long-term welfare recipients are often the most vulnerable, suffering from mental and physical disabilities, poor job histories and little education, she said. But without welfare, they'll likely show up in other ways that will cost taxpayers, from emergency rooms to shelters to the criminal justice system, Schott said.
"The reason they are on public assistance is because many of them are not really succeeding in the workforce," said Schott, a senior fellow at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research organization.
Arizona's Legislature cut the budgets of an array of programs to meet the governor's no-tax-increase pledge. The bill that included the welfare cuts received overwhelming support earlier this spring from Republicans, with just one Democrat voting in favor.
The Legislature also passed a law seeking to force anyone getting Medicaid to have a job, and cutting off those benefits after five years. And Republican leaders are suing their own state to block a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's health care law, which expanded Medicaid to give more poor people health insurance.
If they prevail, more than 300,000 poor Arizonans could lose their coverage.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's office called all these cuts necessary to protect taxpayers and K-12 classrooms — even though the source of the money is the federal government.
Arizona's welfare is entirely federally funded through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but that money comes in a block grant, and Republicans want to use it instead for agencies such as the state's Department of Child Safety.
"The bipartisan, balanced budget passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor protects Arizona's most vulnerable, while avoiding a tax increase," said Daniel Scarpinato, governor's office spokesman.
Democratic Rep. Andrew Sherwood, D-Tempe, said the Republicans made these cuts hastily, voting in the middle of the night in March to avoid transparency.
"This is a very small investment, but it is critical to people who need it the most," Sherwood said. "You're talking about desperate families, those who are unemployed and underemployed. Single mothers and parents with kids."
Former President Bill Clinton signed the block grant law in 1997, making good on a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." The federal government still requires states to make sure recipients have a job, are looking for work, going to school or trying to go to school, but states retain broad discretion in imposing restrictions.