House Republicans explore new way to punish low-income, aging Kansans seeking food

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TOPEKA — A Florida-based lobbying group that fights government assistance programs wants Kansas lawmakers to impose new restrictions on federal food support for low-income people in their 50s.

The House Welfare Reform Committee considered testimony Tuesday on House Bill 2140, which would require Kansans between the ages of 49 and 60 to enroll in job training programs, even if they are already working part-time, have physical impairments or look after a child in their family, in order to keep their food support.

Opportunity Solutions Project is the only entity to publicly support the bill. It is the lobbying arm of the Foundation for Government Accountability and works in statehouses across the country to oppose Medicaid, food support and unemployment programs.

The lobbying group hopes to build on legislation passed last year that imposed restrictions on Kansas adults below the age of 50 who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Last year, when a representative for the lobbying group testified by video, Democrats complained about the out-of-state influence. This year, Opportunity Solutions Project paid Kansas-based lobbyist Steve Greene to testify in support.

Steve Greene stands at a microphone
Steve Greene, a Kansas-based lobbyist, appears before the House Welfare Reform Committee on behalf of the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Greene celebrated the impact of last year’s legislation, which has taken food assistance away from 7% of the state’s able-bodied adults without dependents since the law took effect in October. He said there are currently 97,000 open jobs in Kansas, and guessed that the people who lost food assistance had found full-time employment.

“People can disagree on the fundamental question, which is how do we help people that are in need?” Greene said. “And I think this is fundamentally a difference in perspective.”

He could provide no evidence that new restrictions would inspire people in their 50s to get a job. State regulations already require SNAP recipients to work 30 hours per week.

Greene and Republicans on the committee repeatedly emphasized the restrictions only apply to able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs. That is a federal designation that actually includes people who work part-time, are between jobs, sick, physically or mentally impaired, or looking after a grandchild or other child in their family.

Opponents of the bill include AARP Kansas, Kansas Appleseed, Kansas Action for Children, food banks, Kansas Aging and Disability Resource Center, the state teachers union, and public health agencies.

The Department for Children and Families, which administers SNAP benefits, said the bill’s restrictions would not comply with federal regulations.

Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican who introduced the bill, challenged opponents to help her understand what “food insecurity” means, or how someone could have a physical impairment but not be classified as disabled, or taking a care of a child who is not claimed as a dependent.

“So, I mean, I’m a firm believer that work is empowering to people,” Humphries said.

She pointed to her fellow lawmakers as proof that aging Kansans are capable of working.

“I’m kind of just struggling a little bit with assuming that 50- to 59-year-olds are going to have trouble with these requirements, knowing that I’m looking around this committee, and there’s a good bit of us that are way over that age,” Humphries said.

Rep. Webster Roth, a Winfield Republican, shared her skepticism.

“I’ve noticed a lot of people over the age of 59, me included, in the House,” Roth said. “So, we’re able-bodied adults, and we’re still out in the workforce, and it gives a sense of satisfaction and pleasure.”

Haley Kotler testifies before a committee
Haley Kotler, anti-hunger campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, tells lawmakers about the women she relies on to help provide care for her mother. Sometimes those CNAs fall short of working 30 hours in a week, she says. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Haley Kottler, anti-hunger campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, talked about the women who help her care for her mother, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

Her mother is bedbound and on a ventilator. She cares for her when she can but also relies on certified nursing assistants for help. These women sacrifice themselves to care for others, Kottler said, often taking care of people in their own families without pay. Sometimes, they don’t meet the 30-hour work requirement in a week.

“I just want to say that I see it every day that people are working,” Kottler said. “But maybe they’re not working in the way that is on paper.”

Erin Melton appears before a legislative committee
Erin Melton, food security policy adviser for Kansas Action for Children, says new restrictions will require people to choose between training they don’t need and providing care for children in their family. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Erin Melton, food security policy adviser for Kansas Action for Children, highlighted a number of similar examples where someone may fall short of 30 hours of work. The proposed law could actually be a barrier to someone working more hours, Melton said, because they would have to take a training course in addition to seeing more shifts.

Melton also pointed to the lack of child care options in many rural areas of the state. Families often depend on older relatives to care for grandchildren or nieces and nephews while the parents are at work.

“This bill would disrupt children’s care networks and would force lower-income older Kansans into a very difficult decision between enrolling in a training program that they may not need, which would waste taxpayer dollars, or losing the food assistance benefits that they need in order to continue caring for children in their lives,” Melton said.

Glenda DuBoise, director of AARP Kansas, said her organization deals with people “over the age of 50 who have different conditions or different situations that could impact their ability to be considered an able body.” Some people in the age range struggle with the onerous paperwork associated with the SNAP program, or with technology, she said.

Glenda DuBoise appears before a legislative committee
Tom Harper/Lawrence Times Glenda DuBoise, director of AARP Kansas, says access to food results in fewer hospital visits. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

DuBoise said access to food translates to fewer hospital visits.

The barriers imposed by the bill, DuBoise said, “will make it even harder for struggling seniors to participate in the program, and even harder for them to afford groceries that they need in order to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill. Her peer-reviewed, published research has demonstrated a connection between past restrictions the Legislature imposed on food assistance and a dramatic rise in the number of children entering foster care.

Ginther’s testimony said the new restrictions “will not lead to economic self-sufficiency for able-bodied adults without children,” but will result in increased food insecurity.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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