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Feb. 10, 2012
TOPEKA Members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee today grilled a top welfare official about a controversial change in policy that has resulted in at least 1,000 children being dropped from the state’s food stamp program.
"Can you tell me how this fits in the governor's roadmap to take children out of poverty?" Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, asked Michelle Schroeder, director of public policy and legislative relations at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
"This is a policy that's based on equality in the system," Schroeder said. "We had to look at the policy in totality as it affects every household."
"Which is easy to do when you're sitting in an office in Topeka dealing with them in the aggregate," Kelly replied. "It's a little harder to do when you're back home and can't go to the grocery store."
The previous policy for determining eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allowed households headed by non-citizens to earn, on average, about $900 more per month than households headed by citizens and still qualify for benefits, said Schroeder, repeating what she told a House committee last week.
Kelly said that rationale seemed to be flawed. She pointed to a document with four scenarios under the previous formula where all-citizen households fared better than the same household with an undocumented member.
"The premise that households with an undocumented resident (were) being treated better, that doesn't appear to be the case," Kelly said.
Prior to October, food stamp eligibility for Kansas children of undocumented parents — as in most states — was determined by a formula that counted a fraction of the household income to account for the parents’ ineligibility.
For example, if the non-citizen parents in a five-person household — two parents, three U.S.-born children — earned $2,000 a month, that $2,000 was divided by five and multiplied by three to determine whether the family met the program’s income threshold and to decide the amount of food aid it would receive. In this example, the monthly household income would be counted as $1,200, making the three children together eligible for about $365 a month in food stamps, or about $121 per child.
By contrast, if the parents were U.S. citizens, the five people in the household would be eligible for a total household benefit of about $425 a month, or about $85 per person.
SRS officials concluded that the potentially greater per-person benefit under the old “prorated” formula was unfair even though the total household benefit was less for the family headed by undocumented parents.
With the new policy, all household income is counted but only the number of citizens in the house is used to determine eligibility.
The change resulted in 1,042 children losing benefits in households with at least one undocumented parent, according to SRS.
Federal regulations do not allow illegal immigrants to apply for food stamps for themselves. They are, however, allowed to apply on behalf of their minor children, if the children were born in the United States. Citizenship is automatic for U.S.-born children regardless of the status of the parents.
SNAP, funded by the federal government but managed by states, is still commonly referred to as the “food stamp” program, even though beneficiaries now use a government-issued electronic swipe card to purchase groceries.
One of four states
Kansas is the fourth state to adopt the current eligibility requirements — Arizona, Utah and Nebraska are the others. The other 46 states use the eligibility formula previously used by Kansas, which changed its policy in October 2011.
"Why are only four states using this program?" asked Sen. Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway.
"I can't answer that," Schroeder said.
Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, asked how children who qualified for food stamps before were faring without them now.
"Are they starving? Are they getting food?" Schodorf said.
Schroeder answered: "According to USDA, there's enough income coming into that household that they do not qualify for food stamps," referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nutrition program.
Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City Democrat, inquired if any other options were considered before the policy was changed.
"If you were worried about inequity in the system, why didn't you just set a cap" on the benefit level as a way to make the system equitable without stripping all benefits from some children, Kultala asked.
Schroeder said that the guidelines set by USDA only allowed for two options: the current policy or the previous one.
Kelly asked if requesting permission from USDA to set a cap on benefits was considered.
"That's really not my call. I know that the administration is reviewing," Schroeder said. "So I think that would be a decision that is over my pay grade."
'A matter of equity'
Gov. Sam Brownback has said that he supported the policy change.
“It’s a matter of equity,” Brownback said. “The change that was put forward is that you consider all ... adult income coming into that household, whether it comes from somebody that’s documented or undocumented.”
Incoming SRS Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has indicated she does not intend to revisit the issue.
Committee member Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, today defended the policy change, saying it counted all of a household's income rather than excluding some because one or more of the family members were undocumented.
"We've simply validated that the household has more income than qualifies for federal assistance," he said.
Advocates for the poor have criticized the change.
Melinda Lewis of El Centro, an anti-poverty program in Kansas City, Kan., said that SRS' stated reason for the policy change is not supported by the facts.
"Which raises real questions about why Kansas should pursue a policy that so clearly harms U.S. citizen children, in the absence of any federal pressure, fiscal constraints or other compelling rationale," said Lewis, who produced the document cited by Kelly.
Lewis said El Centro staff have approached USDA officials to see if capping benefits would be a possible alternative.
"They determined that such a move is not impermissible but would require a request for a waiver from the state agency. They wouldn't give us a definitive answer on how they would respond, since there hasn't been a request, but they seemed fairly amenable to it," she said.
Lewis said USDA officials indicated that it would take six to eight weeks to process such a request.
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