KHI News Service

Community groups criticize new state food stamp policy

But SRS officials say program is now more fair to U.S. citizens

By Dave Ranney, Mike Shields | November 28, 2011

Advocates for children and the poor say a new state welfare policy is denying or reducing federal food aid to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Kansas children.

“This is making an already difficult situation even more difficult,” said Debbie Snapp, who runs the Catholic Social Services office in Dodge City. “In the 28 counties that we serve, not one has a median income that matches the median income of the state. So we have a lot of low-income families out here that are struggling to make ends meet. This new policy doesn’t help these families. It hurts them.”

But officials with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services say the new policy, enacted in October, is fairer than the one it replaced because it equalizes benefits for children of illegal immigrants with those for children whose parents are confirmed U.S. citizens.

“We’re not hurting anybody and we’re not discriminating against anybody and we’re not doing anything that’s illegal or in violation of federal regulations,” said Angela de Rocha, an SRS spokesperson, responding to the criticisms. "I don’t understand why illegal immigrant advocates want to raise a public debate about this policy.

“Are they saying they prefer the policy to be unequal, and to discriminate against American citizens and legal residents? Before, families in which one or more members declined to provide proof of legal residency were getting preferential treatment. Now, they're getting even-handed treatment."

Defining fair

At the heart of the issue is the state’s new way of defining “fair,” which critics say doesn't seem that way at all, especially because it dismantled a long-standing formula for determining food-stamp eligibility that continues to be used in most other states. The directive has not corrected inequity, they said, but instead has created new problems and runs counter to Gov. Sam Brownback’s goal of reducing childhood poverty.

Officials at El Centro, an anti-poverty program in Kansas City, Kan., have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to review the new policy to see if it violates the civil rights of the affected children, all of whom are verified U.S. citizens though their parents may be undocumented.

USDA 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.<a name="continued"></a>

“We probably have eight people coming in every day now with letters that say their case has been closed, that their kids have been cut off or they’re going to be cut off,” said Melinda Lewis, a policy analyst with El Centro, describing the new policy’s consequences in the Kansas City area.

The policy

Prior to October, food stamp eligibility for Kansas children of undocumented parents — as in most states — was determined by a formula that counted the parents’ income but reduced the total household benefits to account for the parents’ ineligibility.

KHI News file photo

SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki

View larger photo

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.

Current 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.

'Treated equally'

In a Sept. 19 press statement announcing the new policy, SRS officials said the old formula had “resulted in households with non-citizen members receiving benefits at higher levels than households comprised entirely of American citizens. The new policy will result in citizen and non-citizen household income levels being treated equally and both types of households in the same circumstances will receive equal benefits, ending the unequal and discriminatory policy currently in place.”

But the new approach means some families that previously received benefits now receive none at all.

Generally, a three-person household living on $2,000 a month is not eligible for food stamps because its income exceeds the eligibility threshold. So before Oct. 1, the three U.S.-born children with non-citizen parents in the example above were eligible for about $365 a month in food stamps. But under the new policy they no longer are eligible for any.

The five-person family headed by U.S.-citizen parents is still eligible for about $425 in food assistance each month, or about $85 per person.

A “prorating” formula for determining household income remains in place in most other states and had been used in Kansas for years before it was changed by SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki, who took the post in January as part of the new Brownback administration.


State Options Report

Download .PDF

Siedlecki in September also announced a number of other new welfare restrictions that are expected to save the state about $7.6 million this fiscal year. The food stamp changes aren’t expected to save the state any money because the program is fully funded by the federal government.

'Food on the table'

The prior food stamp formula survived several preceding changes in administrations, including those headed by Democratic and Republican governors. Brownback is a Republican.

“We prorated the income to be fair to the household and to the children and so there would be enough money coming in to take care of kids,” said Janet Schalansky, secretary of SRS from 1999 to 2004 during the administrations of Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. “It was important to us to try to keep children out of poverty and to have enough food on the table.”

SRS officials said the new policy was not intended to target Hispanic children, but those who work with the affected families said that has been a consequence because the large majority of Kansas children living with undocumented parents are Hispanic.

“I don’t know that this constitutes an anti-Hispanic practice per se,” said El Centro’s Lewis. “But it’s pretty clear that SRS is targeting mixed-status households, and in Kansas our demographics are such that a sizable majority of these households are Hispanic.”

'No longer entitled'

SRS spokeswoman de Rocha said children were not being dropped from the program because their parents were non-citizens. Instead, she wrote in an email to KHI News Service, it was “because their families’ incomes rose above the guideline level for this benefit and they were no longer entitled to it. All children are being treated the same regardless of their parents’ legal status.”

Lewis said she hadn’t seen evidence the families’ incomes were on the rise as opposed to being counted differently.

“These families’ incomes haven’t gone up. If they had, we’d be celebrating,” she said. “What’s happened is SRS is saying that if the parents are citizens, it’s going to count all the income and all the people in the household. But if the parents aren’t citizens, it’s going to count all the income and not all the people.”

There are no solid numbers on how many children are no longer receiving food stamps because of the new policy.

“We do not have that information at this time,” de Rocha said.

But Lewis and other advocates said they think hundreds, likely thousands, of children have lost or will lose food benefits as a result.

“As a society we’ve always said that we value children, that they represent our future,” said Snapp of Catholic Social Services. “To cut them off of a program that’s there to make sure they have access to adequate nutrition just doesn’t seem very moral to me.”