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SRS unveils new rules for welfare benefits

Advocates for the poor worry about tighter access to help

By Dave Ranney | September 19, 2011

The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services has announced several new rules that are expected to affect low-income families’ access to cash assistance, food stamps and child care.

The changes, according to SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki, are meant to help the poor find jobs and get off welfare while cracking down on fraud.

“These reforms will aid the department’s ability to eliminate fraud and abuse, while, at the same time, helping recipients of TANF, SNAP, and child care assistance move into full-time employment and achieve self-sufficiency,” Siedlecki said in a prepared statement, referring to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

But advocates for the poor said the new rules, scheduled to become effective Jan. 1, 2012, will make it harder for many poor families to get help.

“This is an assault on poor people,” said Melissa Nolte, who leads the Homeless Task Force of Topeka.

“It concerns me that here in Topeka our homeless shelter, Topeka Rescue Mission, is bursting at the seams like never before. We’ve got (homeless) people camping out all over Shawnee County, and yet we’re going to make it more difficult to receive assistance,” Nolte said. “We need to be helping people, not accusing them of fraud.”

The changes include a ban on welfare recipients using their cash assistance to buy alcohol, tobacco products, or lottery tickets.

State and federal laws already prohibit such purchases with food stamps, but there’s nothing to stop someone from using their cash assistance to buy non-essential items.

In Kansas, the state’s cash assistance and food stamp programs use a single, debit-card system. Food purchases are deducted from a beneficiary’s food-stamp account. Non-essential purchase – diapers, for example – are deducted from their cash-assistance account.

The system allows welfare recipients to also receive cash from the cash-assistance accounts and spend it however they see fit. They’re not prohibited from buying alcohol, tobacco products, or lottery tickets.

“That’s how it is now,” said Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for SRS. “We’re just prohibiting it. It’s not been prohibited in the past.”

It remains unclear how SRS will know when someone is using their cash to buy a prohibited product instead of something like a box of diapers.

Average monthly TANF assistance is about $112 per person. Average monthly food stamp assistance is about $126 per person, according to SRS documents.

The changes, de Rocha said, are expected to generate between $10 million and $15 million in savings, which will be used to bolster the department’s employment programs. They will not be used, she said, to underwrite new initiatives aimed at promoting healthy marriage, fatherhood and adoption.

De Rocha said the agency expects the rules will be approved by Oct. 1 and implemented by Jan. 1.

“You can’t just drop this on people all at once,” she said. “You have to train your people (SRS workers) first. That training starts this week, by the way.”

The changes, she said, do not require legislative approval.

One of the new policies is to offer low-income families $1,000 to address one-time emergencies – car repairs, for example – in exchange for them agreeing not to apply for TANF for one year.

“I have to say that’s one of the ones that sort of raised my eyebrows,” said Barb Andres, executive director at Venture House, a program for the poor and homeless in Wichita that is run by Episcopal Social Services.

“For a few people, yeah, it could be a good thing,” Andres said. “But for most people, I could see that money being gone in a matter of a week and then where would they be?”

De Rocha said the change is designed to help low-income parents who are in crisis, don’t want to go on welfare and could “squeak by” with a little help.

“A lot of states have this already,” she said.

The changes also call for making sure that the incomes of non-U.S. citizens living in a home are included in determining food-stamp and cash-assistance eligibility.

SRS, de Rocha said, has identified at least 1,400 cases in which households that include non-U.S. citizens were receiving more assistance than comparable households with just U.S. citizens.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure,” she said.

Soon, the two groups – U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens – will be subject to equal eligibility calculations, de Rocha said.

“At this point, it’s hard to know what the overall impact of this going to be. As they say, ‘The devil is in the details,” said Kansas Head Start Association Executive Director Lori Alvarado.

“It gets very complicated,” she said. “Every family has different circumstances, so every determination of eligibility ends up being different. You get into questions: Are the parents married? Is one of them a U.S. citizen? Is one of them not a U.S. citizen? Were the children born in the United States? Were they not born in the United States?”

Also included among the changes are penalties for welfare recipients – young mothers, mostly – who resist helping SRS collect child support from the fathers of their children.

Those who resist once will be denied cash assistance for three months. Those who resist a second time will be denied for six months; a third time, 12 months; and a fourth time, 10 years.

Many families, de Rocha said, would not be on public assistance if the children’s non-custodial parents were paying their child support.

In Kansas last month, 71 percent of the 37,200 people on TANF were children; 46 percent of the state’s 305,600 food stamp recipients were children.

“I commend SRS for wanting to make sure that every dollar spent fighting poverty is spent wisely,” said Barry Feaker, who runs the Topeka Rescue Mission. “A lot of what they’re doing, I think, needs to be examined. There is some enabling that occurs, and that should be addressed. But I also think we need to be very careful not to penalize our children for the failures of adults. And let’s not forget, we’re dealing with some very vulnerable populations here.”