Jeannette Mott Oxford and Nicole L. McKoy

“Your money is no good here.” It may sound like a line spoken by the barkeeper in an old-timey Western movie. 

The man behind the bar refuses service to a gunslinger known to be trouble. Yet, innocent residents of St. Louis City and St. Louis County all too often hear modern versions of this line from potential landlords or leasing agents when inquiring about apartments or houses for rent. 

Prospective tenants may hear or read: “vouchers/Section 8 not accepted;” “SSI/SSDI need not apply;” “TANF cash not allowed;” or, more subtly, “we require a minimum income of $43,000 a year.” All of them are phrases that convey, “You are not welcome here, and neither is your money.” 

While acronyms like TANF may look like alphabet soup to some, the most disadvantaged know these letters are the names of public benefits programs. These benefits increase family security in times of hardship. Section 8 is a housing voucher program that makes housing affordable for extremely low-to-moderate income families. SSI and SSDI are supplemental and disability income programs for households with very low incomes. TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is a time-limited block grant program offering assistance only to parents with very low incomes and/or their children. 

Empower Missouri was honored to have the opportunity to collaborate in the production of the “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide” report released in April. We join our partners in calling on St. Louis County government to pass legislation to forbid landlords or property managers from rejecting rentals to tenants who receive housing subsidies or other forms of public assistance. 

We also call on St. Louis City to better enforce its recent ban on source of income discrimination. According to attorneys at both the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing & Opportunity Council (EHOC) and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, ads stating “No Section 8” are common. Anecdotal evidence further finds applicants whose main source of income is SSI or SSDI must pay higher security deposits, which makes housing out of reach for many. 

Source of income discrimination often rears its ugly head in state policy. Rep. J. Eggleston (R-Maysville) annually sponsors a bill that would make it much harder for recipients of TANF to obtain housing – or to convert their assistance into necessary currency to buy essentials. 

This past session’s version, House Bill 1443, would have made it impossible for TANF recipients to use the benefits on their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to obtain cash at ATMs. In a hearing on a previous version of the bill, Rep. Eggleston claimed this policy was necessary because people on TANF just use their cash to obtain “meth, whiskey and pornography.” 

TANF is a miserly program, offering maximum assistance of just $292 per month for a family of three in Missouri. Access to cash is essential for people living with limited incomes. Cash is required at laundromats. Many recipients shop for their children’s clothing at yard sales where payments are cash-only. 

Source of income discrimination further perpetuates housing segregation in our region. These areas of concentrated poverty are usually food deserts. Yet, local merchants sometimes do not have working EBT equipment. Finally, cash is necessary when rent is due and the landlord does not “deal” in EBT cards. 

Rep. Eggleston claimed no family on TANF would be harmed by his bill, saying virtually all of them get Section 8 and have landlords who accept EBT cards. His view his highly inaccurate. Section 8 reports that only 15 percent of families using the program show TANF income. When lawmakers do not know the realities of living in poverty, great harm can be done to the poorest among us. HB 1443 passed the House by a vote of 100-46. It died in the Senate after intense opposition. 

Justice does not prevail where prejudice exists. Discrimination based on income is one of many factors that keeps families trapped in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods. It blocks people from communities with opportunities for a good education, access to social capital, and better health outcomes. It is time for St. Louis City and County officials to end to this discrimination that’s harming these families. Their dollars should have the same value as everyone else’s. 

Empower Missouri (www.EmpowerMissouri.org), advocates for the well-being of all Missourians through civic leadership, education, and research. Founded in 1901 as the Missouri Conference on Charities and Corrections, Empower Missouri focuses especially on access to basic human needs and fairness. Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former state representative for a portion of the City of St. Louis, has been executive director since 2012. Nicole McKoy, president of the Empower Missouri Board of Directors, is Divisional Social Services Asset Manager & Housing Specialist, at the Salvation Army, Midland Division.

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