Thousands of Kansans could lose food stamps under a new state policy that congressional Republicans hope to implement nationwide.
Kansas officials indicated that they will reinstate work requirements for food stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependent children. Under the new policy, come October, those aged 18 to 49 will need to work at least 20 hours per week or enroll in a job training program within three months in order to continue to receive benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"We know that employment is the most effective way to escape poverty," Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said in a statement posted on hayspost.com. Gilmore's agency estimates that 20,000 Kansas SNAP recipients will be affected.
Federal law allows able-bodied adults without children to receive nutrition assistance for only three months if they don't get jobs or sign up for training, but states can waive the requirement during periods of high unemployment -- something more than 45 states currently do. Kansas will join Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming and Utah as states that don't waive the able-bodied work requirement for food stamps. Oklahoma and Wisconsin also intend to allow their waivers to lapse, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
"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," Gillmore said.
Last month Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives signaled they will push legislation to curtail all states' use of the waivers. The percentage of able-bodied jobless Americans on SNAP rose from 6.6 percent to 9.7 percent of the overall food stamp population between 2007 to 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that eliminating the waivers nationally would deprive some 4 million Americans of nutrition assistance.
In Kansas, the policy change is being greeted warmly by conservative Republicans, who dominate state politics. State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) told The Huffington Post that he sees the shift as a way for those receiving government assistance to get jobs instead of remaining in an assistance program.
"Government assistance should be just that, a safety net, not a long-term way of life," Couture-Lovelady said. "Government assistance should be a hand up, not a hand-out. Individuals who take short-term assistance to avoid long-term dependency need to maintain empowerment over their lives, and a work requirement does just that."
Progressives in the state say the policy change will only hurt the less fortunate. Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), a leader of the state's progressive movement, told HuffPost that the policy shift will force more adults in the state to turn to soup kitchens and food pantries in order to eat. He said this will put an additional strain on nonprofits, along with shifting the expense to local governments, which fund many of the emergency food programs.
"We have not shifted the long-term problem," Manspeaker said. "There aren't jobs out there, and we don't solve it by starving them."
State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told HuffPost that part-time jobs are available around the state and that those looking to meet the minimum work requirement just need to know where to look.
"The jobs that are 20 hours a week are in the service and retail industries, and those jobs are not hard to find in any part of the state," Claeys said.
Manspeaker believes that the policy shift is an attempt by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) to "rally up the base" as he heads into his 2014 reelection campaign. The move does come as Kansas politics continues to take a sharp right turn, the impact of conservative Republicans seizing complete control of state government in 2012. Former state Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton), a moderate Republican, last year accused Brownback and his allies, including billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, of wanting to turn Kansas into an "ultraconservative utopia."
Manspeaker said food stamps continue to be a touchy subject with many in the state, and Wednesday's action could help Brownback in his reelection battle against state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence) next year.
"Anytime I've talked about food stamp programs, tempers fly fast, because people assume they are abusing the system," Manspeaker said. "Try living on $300 a month for food -- you can't. It's a pittance, it is nothing."