Kansas policymakers seem to be at the forefront of a controversial national movement to make it more difficult for people to qualify for a federal program that helps more than 46 million low-income Americans — including more than 300,000 Kansans — buy groceries.
Under federal law, able-bodied adults without young children are generally only eligible for food stamps — also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — if they are working at least 20 hours per week, are looking for work, or are in a qualified job-training program and earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Otherwise, the limit on food stamps is three months out of every three years.
But states can get exemptions from those federal requirements and nearly all — including Kansas — have loosened the restrictions since the nationwide economic recessions that hit in 2001 and 2008.
But now, Republican conservatives from Kansas and elsewhere have been pushing to stiffen the work requirements as a way to cut government spending.
For example, Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp offered an amendment during recent debate on the Farm Bill that would have rolled back the state exemption option and made it mandatory for each state to adopt stiffer work requirements. Had it passed, it was projected to have cut food stamp spending by about $31 billion over ten years.
"I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put some real work requirements" on food stamps, Huelskamp told KHI News Service. "Most Kansans I talk to are not opposed to helping those in need. Overwhelmingly, that's what they say. But they are opposed to helping those who don't need it. Whether it's waste, fraud and abuse or outright provisions...I think those are the kind of reforms people would like to see.”
• Average SNAP benefit per person:
• Average SNAP benefit for a family of four:
• Average minimum cost of feeding a family of four:
—Source: KDHE, USDA
But critics say if the stiffer work requirements pushed by Huelskamp and other GOP conservatives were adopted, the results would be “draconian” with millions left without the food aid at a time when unemployment remains high in many parts of the country.
“I have been working on SNAP for 41 years and have always supported reasonable work requirements,” said Robert Greenstein, founder of The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington D.C. think tank, writing in a recent blog post.
Comparison of work requirement proposals
“There is a bright yellow line down the middle of the road between: 1) Requiring people to try to find jobs, to take jobs that are offered, and not to quit jobs, and 2) Denying benefits to people who do everything they can to get jobs but can’t find them and aren’t ever offered a work program or job training slot. The former is reasonable. The latter is not, and it should offend anyone with a sense of fairness and compassion,” he said.
There has been no estimate developed of how many Kansans would have lost SNAP benefits had the Huelskamp amendment become law. But an earlier version of the Farm Bill approved by a U.S. House committee, which was less restrictive than Huelskamp’s plan, would have eliminated the benefit for more than 13,000 Kansans, according to state welfare officials.
Huelskamp, a Republican from Dodge City, represents the state’s predominantly agricultural 1st District. He was one of two House members who proposed stiffer work requirements for the food stamp program during the recent Farm Bill debate.
In the last year, state officials have experimented with stepping up basic food stamp work requirements by offering some recipients help in finding a job or job training. Participation is voluntary in the eight counties where the pilot program is available — Atchison, Brown, Douglas, Geary, Osage, Pottawatomie, Riley and Shawnee.
Last week, state welfare officials told a childhood poverty task force that the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback would like to make the training program mandatory statewide.
Those who fail to comply with the requirement could be cut off from food stamps for one, three or six months. Chronic non-compliance could result in permanent disqualification.
Michelle Schroeder of the Department of Children and Families defended the proposals, which seemed to get a lukewarm response from the task force members.
"Obviously, it's very difficult to obtain self-sufficiency without at least one (adult) in the household having full-time work," Schroeder said.
Though his amendment failed, a similar one from U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican, was approved minutes before the overall bill was voted down, 195-234. Many observers blamed the Farm Bill’s defeat in the House on that amendment.
But Huelskamp laid the blame at the feet of the chamber’s Republican leadership, with whom he has quarreled for months. In December last year, House Speaker John Boehner pulled Huelskamp off the agriculture and budget committees after Huelskamp crossed Boehner during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
"It's very rare that leadership — whether it's Republican or Democrat — brings something to the floor that loses so spectacularly. It didn't even get 200 votes. That was quite surprising," Huelskamp said, describing the Farm Bill’s failure. "Republican leadership fell very short.”
Huelskamp, who was among those who voted against the bill, said it was just as likely that the measure failed because it did not go far enough in stiffening the SNAP work requirements.
"On my particular amendment we got 175 votes (with 250 voting against), and more Republicans voted for my amendment than voted for the Farm Bill. So if we can move in the direction of my amendment, I think there's a real chance we can find" agreement, he said.
Ballooning food stamp rolls
Persistent high unemployment after the last recession has resulted in nearly twice as many people — about 46.6 million — receiving food stamps than there were just five years ago.
The soaring cost of the SNAP program has made it a lightning rod in the recent congressional debates over renewing the Farm Bill, a measure historically renewed every five years. The bill’s reauthorization has been stalled in Congress the last two years. Besides the food stamp program, the measure also includes programs such as crop insurance and farm subsidies that affect thousands of Kansas farmers.<a name="continued"></a>
After the U.S. Senate approved its version of a new Farm Bill last month, the U.S. House — for the second year in a row — became embroiled in debate over how to best shrink the swelling rolls of food stamp recipients and cut program costs.
Farm policies in limbo
Meanwhile, negotiations on the Farm Bill continue, and hanging in the balance are other policies that affect Kansas farmers.
Direct farm programs make up about a quarter of the $500 billion Farm Bill, including those dealing with crop insurance, farm subsidies and conservation.
So long as the Farm Bill remains in political limbo, fears persist over what a failure to renew it might mean, said Terry Holdren, general counsel and chief executive designee of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
"You may recall last winter when the original (Farm Bill) legislation was set to expire, there were rumors and lots of talk about dramatically escalating milk prices and other food price increases because of the expiration of some of the programs in the Farm Bill," Holdren said.
"Congress took action at the very last minute and extended the Farm Bill to Sept. 30 (2013). Now, that's the end-of-the-day deadline. If we don't get it done before then, there's every likelihood that those same sorts of fears and possible scenarios will play out at the end of September this year," he said.
Holdren said he was fairly confident that some version of a Farm Bill will be passed before the deadline, but that he was disturbed that the impasse has meanwhile left farmers unable to plan well.
"Our farmers and ranchers in Kansas — and across the nation — they are small business owners by and large. They need some level of certainty in the policies and rules of the game from government. Folks are leery of expanding their operation or buying new equipment or buying new land when they don't know what the policy is," Holdren said.
"Businesses aren't making new investments because they don't know what the rules are. The other thing is: We begin every September or October planting next year's wheat crop," he said. "Not knowing what the rules are related to that crop will impact their ability to make a good decision."
→ Report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: The Relationship Between SNAP and Work Among Low-Income Households
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