Hunger in Missouri is a massive problem. With more than 875,000 people — roughly one in seven residents — living below the federal poverty line and nearly one in five children below that bare-bones threshold, Missouri is home to the second-highest share of residents who struggle to get food.
So when ThinkProgress reported that the state diverted $4.3 million of the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) funds it receives from the federal government to promote “alternatives to abortion” through crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) — organizations created specifically to discourage women from getting abortions, often by misleading or flat out lying to them — Missouri citizens were outraged.
“After seeing the article a bunch of activists and grassroots people started reaching out and tweeting us, saying ‘this is disgusting,’” recalled Alison Dreith, the executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.
ThinkProgress found that Missouri is one of seven states that uses TANF money to fund CPCs and ranks behind only Texas for spending the largest chunk on that questionable purpose.
On October 7, NARAL organized a protest outside of THRIVE, a crisis pregnancy center in St. Louis located just a few blocks from the only remaining clinic that provides abortions in the state. “Everyone was so aware of that hunger report… Missouri is the second hungriest state in the country, almost the fastest growing rate of all time,” Dreith said.
Dreith noted that the while many people assume the greatest poverty is in inner city areas like downtown St. Louis, “the hungriest districts are in rural Missouri, very much in ‘red’ Congressional and state house districts. Those legislators get how hungry and need their constituents are, but to keep up appearances in their party, [many voted last year to] reroute TANF funds.”
Advocates hope that that appropriation, which was part of the state’s budget process, might be kept out of next year’s budget or at least reduced. And to raise awareness of the issue, one state legislator is going a step forward, authoring a just-filed bill to prohibit the use of state funds on CPCs and anyone else who would provide medically inaccurate and biased information.
Rep. Deb Lavender, a Democrat from St. Louis County, told ThinkProgress she filed the bill because she is concerned about priorities: “When we started pulling money for food for our children to pay for marriage counseling is when I became very concerned about the path that we’re on.”
In her own district, Lavender has seen a substantial growth in recent years in those relying on a local food pantry. “I have a district where people are mostly employed. Even in my district, the need has gone up. I can only imagine the need in the rest of the state, in some of our rural districts.” Moreover, she explained, when the local pantry runs out of food, the community has the resources to answer the call for help, but “in some rural areas, the community doesn’t have the same resources to fill those shelves in pantries.”
As a physical therapist, Lavender noted that she and other medical professionals have to provide medically accurate information — but even the crisis pregnancy centers receiving public funds are under no such obligation.
Her bill would end the practice — though with a Republican super-majority in the legislature and Republican Eric Greitens set to be inaugurated as governor in January, she knows it is unlikely to even get a hearing in committee. Still, she thinks that the bill could raise awareness and encourage Republicans to at least decrease the amount of money siphoned to CPCs.
After the Republican legislature established a 45-month limit for TANF benefits last year, over the veto of Gov. Jay Nixon (D), Lavender recalls sitting in a committee hearing at which the head of the Department of Social Services was asked how many of those whose TANF benefits had been cut off had since found jobs or other agencies to help them. “Quite a few members of the committee I heard give a little gasp,” she said, when he replied, “‘No one… there aren’t jobs available and the agencies, including private agencies, are already at their capacity.’”
“We have a lot of families doing with a lot less,” she concluded. “There can be avenues to putting resources into [addressing] that, instead of crisis pregnancy centers.”