Gov. Sam Brownback is talking up another of his Kansas experiments.
He calls it “lifting people out of poverty.”
Others prefer to describe it as “kicking people off of food stamps.”
Either way, it’s getting a lot of attention, mostly because of a report recently made public by the Foundation for Government Accountability, an advocacy group in Naples, Fla., that seeks to block Medicaid expansion and urges states to tighten eligibility for social service programs, among other things.
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Brownback touted the report at a news conference Thursday. Kansas, he said, would become a nationwide model. Articles appearing on conservative websites are predicting the same thing.
But the report and the Kansas experiment have some problems.
Three years ago, Brownback became one of the first governors to end a waiver that exempted certain people from completing work requirements in order to obtain food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Almost all states used the waiver as a way to cope with high unemployment during the Great Recession.
On Dec. 31, 2013, nearly 13,000 Kansas SNAP recipients found themselves cut off from food aid. Or “freed from welfare,” as the report’s authors explain it.
The exiled recipients are “able-bodied adults without children,” an easy target for welfare opponents. The very label makes them sound like potato-chip-munching couch surfers, although their reality is much more complicated. Brownback’s order required them to attend job training programs or work for at least 20 hours a week to qualify for more than three months of food stamps over a three-year period.
That sounds reasonable, and it is the federal standard for states without waivers. Few people would argue that people are better off receiving food stamps than working, and in fact most SNAP recipients do work. The problem occurs when groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability suggest that abruptly booting people off aid programs will reap magical results.
Brownback’s administration used Social Security numbers to track how many “able-bodied” SNAP recipients found jobs once they left the program, as reported to the state’s Department of Labor. It shared the numbers with the Foundation for Government Accountability.
“The results were remarkable,” exulted the report.
They do sound dramatic.
Three months after the work requirements were reinstated, half of the able-bodied adult recipients had left the SNAP program. Their participation is now 75 percent lower than before the order. Six in 10 of the recipients found work within a year, and overall the group’s income rose by an average of 127 percent. And those who do receive SNAP benefits work more hours and earn higher incomes than able-bodied recipients did before Brownback took action.
All good, right?
But upon closer examination, the results lose some luster.
It is not exactly a revelation that the number of unemployed people in the SNAP program plummeted after the governor decreed that recipients must work or get out. The same goes for the finding that able-bodied adults who continued to receive benefits worked more hours and earned more money than before Brownback’s order. Those outcomes are exactly what the requirements decreed.
The finding that almost 60 percent of able-bodied adults on food stamps were employed a year later is good news. But it would be more meaningful with comparison data from an earlier period.
Able-bodied adults without dependents have never been the slackers that welfare opponents make them out to be. Most of those who seek benefits cycle in and out of low-paying jobs.
Long before Brownback’s edict, data analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that advocates for assistance for the poor, had shown that 75 percent of “able-bodied” SNAP recipients held jobs in either the year before seeking food stamps, the year after or both. Half of them worked within a month of receiving food aid.
Kansas, like other states, was coming out of the recession in 2014, and people of all income levels were having an easier time finding jobs. While Brownback’s removal of the waiver undoubtedly accelerated the decrease in the SNAP numbers, a rising economy was likely a factor also.
The finding that the average annual incomes of the former SNAP recipients increased by 127 percent also sounds encouraging — except that the actual increase was from $2,450 to $5,562, about 50 percent of the federal poverty level. A year after being removed from the food stamp program, most of the 13,000 people were still deeply poor.
The Foundation for Government Accountability report is seeded with enticing examples of people who bounded from welfare to the good life.
After being “stuck on food stamps” for four years, Jason (not his real name) somehow landed a $45,000-a-year job in the publishing industry. Jennifer found a $53,000-a-year job in commercial baking after spending more than a year on food stamps.
But these are like weight loss advertisements that feature the rare dieter who sheds 100 pounds. The reality for most people is much tougher. Forty percent of the exiled SNAP recipients were still unemployed after a year.
It’s ludicrous to think that many able-bodied adults would forgo honest work for a monthly food stamp benefit of around $160. People seek assistance for a reason.
Research has shown that at least a third of adults without dependents who seek food stamp assistance suffer from a physical, mental or psychiatric disorder. They don’t qualify for disability, but they’re not turning cartwheels either.
As a group they have low education levels. More than a third have felony convictions. Six in 10 have no valid driver’s license, and almost half lack access to reliable transportation.
Obviously they would all be better off with good-paying jobs. But that requires a huge lift in the form of education, training, transportation and other services. Kansas, which can’t meet basic expenses, is in no shape to provide that help.
The Foundation for Government Accountability report notes that roughly half of the former SNAP recipients who found jobs earned enough to climb above the federal poverty level.
Their move from welfare to work saves Kansas taxpayers almost $50 million a year, it says. And almost comically, in light of recent Kansas tax policy, the report notes that the income gains from former SNAP recipients “are estimated to increase state income tax collections by up to $1.3 million per year.”
More than 300,000 Kansas business owners are exempt from paying any state income taxes, with no expectation that they create jobs or anything else. But at least the poor are paying more.
That’s what victory looks like in Sam Brownback’s Kansas.