Friday, October 11, 2013

Battle over food stamps going on in Statehouses, and D.C.

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Marian Poe, executive director of Rice County Communities that Serve in Lyons, said she looked at her email the afternoon of Sept. 30 and her jaw dropped.

Just one day before the renewal of a federal grant to help poor people access food stamps was to take effect, the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, informed her and other grantees that the state was no longer going to use those funds.

"It was a total shock," Poe said.

But Republican officials in state Capitols and Washington have been calling for deep cuts in food stamps, saying that the program has grown out of control.

House Republicans have approved a bill that would cut $40 billion in food stamps, kicking millions of people out of the program.

Nationwide, the number of people receiving benefits under the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Program, also called SNAP or referred to as food stamps, has increased approximately 75 percent since 2007.

Defenders of the program, however, say the increase was justified — the nation went through the Great Recession and the economic recovery has been slow. Nearly 47 million people live in poverty, the highest level in two decades. Currently, nearly 320,000 Kansans receive food stamps.

In Kansas, last year, the Brownback administration changed the way it counts food stamp eligibility, which cut food stamps going to thousands of children in households that contained a mixture of legal citizens and undocumented immigrants. After that change took effect, food pantries, churches and social service agencies said they were inundated with requests for food.

Then last month, state officials announced they would not seek renewal of a federal waiver that allowed 20,000 Kansans, who were unemployed and childless, to receive benefits under SNAP. The change in policy was to encourage people to get jobs, said Kansas Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore.

Now comes the refusal by Kansas of federal funds for outreach.

Poe said her small organization of volunteers will be scrambling to make up for the loss of $16,267.50.

Rice County is the sixth poorest county in the state, Poe said. "You just can't get the money from somewhere else. Our food pantries are always short," she said.

Four other grantees — Harvesters, Kansas City; USDA Food Bank, Wichita; Catholic Social Service and Community Access, Independence — also lost outreach grants, totaling $55,260.

The Brownback administration said it dropped the federal funding because the administration doesn't want to encourage people getting on welfare.

"We simply do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to recruit people to be on welfare," said Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for DCF.

When asked to respond to that, the leaders of several social service agencies paused.

"That makes my blood boil. I have never equated food assistance with welfare," said Poe.

The outreach funds were used to help eligible low-income people enroll and fill out the 12-page application for SNAP.

"The people we are helping; these are people who have hit a bump in the road," Poe said.

She said food stamp recipients are often families where the main breadwinner has been injured, or has been laid off, or a pregnant women is placed on bed rest and can't work. About one third of Kansas households receiving SNAP include an individual working, according to DCF.

Without this assistance, she said, "Children are going to go bed hungry."

DCF's Freed disagreed, saying the department anticipated minimal impact to the grantees, and that no benefits were reduced. She said the organizations can still conduct their own outreach. "We support the work of the former grantees to distribute food to low-income families. We simply believe recruiting families to apply for food assistance is not consistent with our efforts to empower people to be less reliant on welfare and more self-sufficient," Freed said. Poe responded, "I'm worried about the direction we are going."