Change in Kansas food stamp rules could cut off 20,000 recipients

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration announced steps Wednesday to nudge more people off public assistance to encourage them to find jobs.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families said that beginning Oct. 1, an estimated 20,000 unemployed Kansas residents who receive food stamps will be forced to work at least 20 hours a week to keep the benefit.

“We know that employment is the most effective way to escape poverty,” agency head Phyllis Gilmore said in a statement. “As long as federal work requirements are met, no one will lose food assistance. The law only affects those individuals who are capable of working and have no dependent children.”

The latest action follows a general philosophy pursued by Brownback since he took office in 2011.

Two years ago, a state change in welfare rules cut about 14,000 people off public assistance and saved the state $14 million.

Among other things, the changes shortened lifetime limits for welfare recipients and began counting the income of a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend to decide how much a household receives.

The state also eliminated another program that paid $100 a month to an estimated 2,000 adults with disabilities living in extreme poverty, saving roughly $3 million.

Critics said the latest announcement reflects an insensitivity toward the least affluent Kansans.

“Once again, we find ourselves cutting off the most vulnerable Kansans from support,” said Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, a Topeka-based think tank that gets funds from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Taking someone off food stamp assistance isn’t going to suddenly create jobs for them.”

A work requirement to receive food stamps has been in place since 1996 as part of welfare reform.

But the 2009 stimulus bill allowed states to waive the requirements for able-bodied adults who had no children. Since then, states have been allowed to keep using the waiver as long as they meet certain criteria.

Kansas no longer meets the criteria because of its low unemployment rate, but the state was offered the chance to use an earlier higher unemployment rate to continue the waiver if it wanted to do so. Kansas rejected that offer, opting instead to let the waiver expire Sept. 30.

Come Oct. 1, adults now getting benefits will have three months to either find work or enroll in a federally approved job training program to keep getting food stamps.

Adults who lose their jobs after that date will be covered by the 1996 law, which makes them eligible for food stamps for three months out of every three years.