State welfare officials announced today that they will not seek renewal of a federal waiver that allows about 20,000 unemployed and childless Kansans to receive government food assistance.
People in the affected group have 90 days to find work or enroll in a federally approved job training program or else they will be denied benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The program, which is fully funded by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is commonly referred to as the Food Stamp program.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, described the new policy as "help, the opposite of cruel," for the people who might lose the food benefits because it would push them to find employment.
'If you can work, you should work'
"The number one way out of poverty is a job," she said. "We believe the jobs are there and these people can work. And if you can work, you should work."
But an official with the region's major supplier to food pantries said she expected the policy change would simply turn more people to private charities for help making ends meet.
"In my mind it presumes that people are not looking for work or don't want to work and I think that's an erroneous assumption," said Joanna Sebelien, chief resource officer for Harvesters, which in Kansas supplies tons of groceries each year to pantries, food kitchens, homeless shelters and other private relief agencies in 16 northeast Kansas counties.
The Harvesters' network distributes food to about 174,000 needy Kansans, including in Topeka and metropolitan Kansas City.
Sebelien predicted more demands on the charities though the "pantries are already overloaded," with requests for aid.
Few other states
Kansas officials said the change would apply only to "able-bodied," childless adults between the ages of 18 and 49. To keep the benefits, they would need to work at least 20 hours per week or be in approved job training.
Current federal law already bars people in that category from receiving SNAP benefits for more than three months in any three-year period, but states can ask for a waiver and provide the benefits longer, which is what Kansas has been doing.
Kansas had the option of extending its current waiver through 2014, but chose against it because it wanted to encourage more people to seek jobs, DCF officials said.
Kansas first received a partial waiver in 2004 under then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and then was granted a statewide waiver in 2009 under terms of the federal economic stimulus law, DCF officials said.
The only other states not using the waiver are Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming and Utah, but Oklahoma and Wisconsin also have signaled they will let their waivers lapse soon, DCF officials said.
Currently, there are about 318,000 Kansans receiving SNAP benefits, or about one in nine. But about 31 percent of those who are eligible for the program don't apply, according to 2011 USDA data. In fiscal 2013, the dollar value of the average monthly benefit received was $124.87.
Today's announcement by DCF in an afternoon press conference was criticized by House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who is considering an election challenge to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican. Others also called it a bad idea.
“Thousands of Kansans are struggling to find a way back into the workforce. Cutting off supports such as SNAP only makes it more difficult for them to get back on their feet at a time when the jobs outlook does not support a policy shift such as this,” said Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.
Gilmore was joined at the press conference by Mike Beene, director of employment services at the Kansas Department of Commerce.
He said the state's job placement centers could help the 20,000 people look for work or job training.
Asked if the agency had the resources to train 10,000 or 20,000 additional people, he said: "That's the multi-million dollar question."
He said many of the people might be able to find work with minimal assistance such as help writing their resumes.
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