Opinion

Jaco: Missouri diverts tax dollars for the needy to anti-abortion extremists

The pro-Trump Tea Party white “populist” rage that fuels Missouri’s governing GOP super-majority has kept one principle from the old days when Missouri Republicans were merely pro-big business and anti-union: Poor people are poor because they deserve to be, and are parasites living on the backs of hard-working white Christian regular Missourians.

Admittedly, the racist dog-whistles equating “poor” with “Black” are louder in the era when the GOP’s base is tuned in more to Proud Boys white grievance than to the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, but the idea’s the same, that “makers” (or “job creators” if you prefer) are being victimized by “takers,” human barnacles sucking up taxpayer dollars without working.

In 2015, Missouri implemented some of the most radical “welfare”cuts in the country, mandating that anyone receiving cash assistance could collect only 45 months worth in their entire lifetime. In 2019 and 2020, Missouri slashed its Medicaid rolls, cutting 100,000 Missouri children off Medicaid. In 2021, state lawmakers and the governor refused to expand Medicaid, despite a statewide vote that amended the state constitution to require Medicaid expansion.

But while all those programs for poor Missourians have been hacked to the bone, federal block grants under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have been rolling in. And, thanks to research from D.C.-based Equity Forward, a pro-choice advocacy group, we now know that millions in federal tax dollars earmarked specifically for the poor and needy have been diverted every year by Missouri to anti-abortion groups. 

Since 2017, $26 million in state budget funds, most of it from the federal assistance to needy families grants, have been diverted to several dozen anti-abortion groups throughout the state, including eight in St. Louis, operating as “pregnancy counselling centers” or, even more misleadingly, as “clinics.” Centers and clinics such as these nationwide have been criticized for offering medically inaccurate information, and using tactics from shame and guilt-inducing videos to “counseling sessions” demanding that women not consider abortions.

In the 2021-2022 state budget — the one that doesn’t include one penny for voter-mandated Medicaid expansion — Missouri is funneling $2 million in state tax revenue and almost $4.3 million in federal funds supposed to relieve hunger and otherwise help the needy, to these front groups trying to stop abortion.

The St. Louis groups running the “pregnancy counselling centers” authorized to use federal money intended to help the poor include:

  • Bethany Christian Services, 1300 Hampton Avenue, a branch of the conservative evangelical Bethany Church organization based in Michigan
  • Birthright Counseling, 3946 Lindell Boulevard, 2525 S. Brentwood Boulevard and 2554 Lemay Ferry Road, whose website claims they “do not accept” any federal or state funding, yet are listed by the state of Missouri as a contractor for the program.
  • Christian Family Services, 7955 Big Bend Boulevard
  • Coalition for Life, 11780 Borman Drive, which advertises that it seeks “to end abortion through prayer”
  • Good Shepherd Children & Family Services, 1340 Partridge Avenue, run by the Catholic Church
  • Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, 9666 Olive Boulevard, a branch of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
  • South County Pregnancy Help Center, 4150 Crescent Drive, whose website makes it appear to be a medical clinic, with stethoscope-wearing models in surgical scrubs.
  • St. Francis Community Services, 4445 Lindell Boulevard, run by the Catholic Church
  • Thrive St. Louis, 4331 Lindell Boulevard, a Christian anti-abortion group whose web site, under “abortion”, offers telephone numbers to other Thrive locations. Thrive had been subcontracted to offer sex education in some area schools until 2017, when questions were raised about transparency and the ideologically loaded curriculum.

Diverting federal money for the poor is not illegal, because the money comes in the form of bloc grants that the state is free to use as it sees fit. But it does go against the spirit of the federal program, designed to funnel money to be used for food, medical care and housing by low-income families.

Overseeing the questionable disbursement of these federal anti-poverty funds to anti-abortion groups has been sub-contracted by the state to another anti-abortion organization, the Kansas City-area based Alliance for Life Missouri, headed by long-time anti-abortion activist Marsha Middleton. Alliance for Life is allowed to give state and federal taxpayer money to the various counseling centers and “clinics” with almost no oversight from the state government.

That fact quickly became apparent to Equity Forward in December, as it was compiling data on the ten states, including Missouri, that shunt federal grants intended to aid the poor to anti-abortion organizations. Equity Forward put in a Sunshine Law request with the Missouri Department of Social Services, trying to figure out how and where federal anti-poverty bloc grants ended up, and asking for two years’ worth of correspondence between the state and Alliance for Life on exactly how the program is run.

Missouri claimed it turned up 47,354 e-mails between the Department of Social Services and Alliance for Life Missouri over that period concerning the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program. But neither Equity Forward, Missouri taxpayers, nor other federal taxpayers whose anti-poverty money is being spent on anti-abortion advocacy will get to see those e-mails, which, by state law, are public record.

That’s because the state Department of Social Services told Equity Forward they would have to come up with $26,291 to get the records, claiming that’s what it would cost to access and print out or transfer the e-mails. Some of the labor to do it was estimated by the state to cost $35 an hour.

We all know what’s going on here. Since 2007, Missouri’s Alternatives to Abortion program has been state law, making it perfectly legal to take federal money intended to feed and clothe low-income Missourians and funnel it to anti-abortion ideologues.

It’s legalized theft of money meant for the least among us, being spent by organizations who care a great deal about children, right up until the moment they clear the birth canal. And neither the state nor the “clinics” offering often dubious medical information, want us to see how it’s done.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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