Friday, March 13, 2015

Kansas Lawmakers consider new restrictions for welfare policies

KHI News Service

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- Kansas lawmakers are preparing to vote on a bill that would further tighten the rules for the state’s two main public assistance programs.

The measure, which the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee endorsed on Wednesday, writes into state law several recent administrative changes made as part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s welfare to work initiative.

Supporters of the changes say they will decrease dependency on welfare and step up efforts to prevent the misuse of benefit cards used by Kansans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Opponents say the bill will reduce the number of people receiving assistance at a time when more Kansans are living in poverty.

The fraud rate in SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, is only 1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The rate of fraud in TANF is harder to pin down. Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Palco Republican, said the bill will help the Brownback administration step up its efforts to detect and prevent fraud.

“It’s hard to track that, but these are just a few things to make those bad actors jump through a few extra hoops,” Couture-Lovelady said.

The bill prohibits TANF recipients from using their cash benefits to make purchases in liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment businesses.

It allows recipients to use their assistance cards to obtain cash at ATMs, but limits withdrawals to $60 a day.

The measure also requires state officials to add recipients’ photographs to TANF and SNAP benefit cards even though some are concerned it will cost the state millions of dollars at a time when lawmakers are struggling to balance the state budget.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families supports the photo requirement and doesn’t believe it will be a big expense, Couture-Lovelady said.

“We’ll look into it further,” he said. “They (DCF) are going to start digging deeper into that and try to get a fiscal note for us. But I think the potential deterrent to fraud makes it worth moving forward.”

The original version of the bill barred Kansans with felony drug convictions from receiving SNAP benefits.

However, the bill was amended in committee to allow people with drug convictions to qualify for food stamps, but only if they complete a treatment program and pass periodic drug tests. The bill also establishes a new lifetime limit on TANF benefits, reducing it from 48 months to 36 months. State officials could grant 12-month extensions in “hardship” cases.

Several nonprofit advocacy organizations are opposed to the bill. They say it will push people off the welfare rolls at a time when more Kansans are struggling to make ends meet.

“The bill does indeed make assistance less accessible,” said Christie Appelhanz, a lobbyist for Kansas Action for Children. “What I’m worried about is that today’s poor children will become tomorrow’s poor adults.”

A recent KAC report said that the number of Kansas children receiving TANF assistance fell by nearly 30 percent after the Brownback administration implemented the administrative changes being made permanent by the bill.

Childhood poverty, the report said, has increased by 22 percent over the last five years. Advocates say the bill also appears designed to make food stamps less accessible.

Among other things, it prohibits the spending of any state or federal dollars to advertise the SNAP program and help people sign up for it. Two years ago, DCF dropped its participation in a federal program that provided grants to five Kansas to do SNAP outreach.

“We simply do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to recruit people to be on welfare,” Theresa Freed, a DCF spokesperson, said at the time.

Rebekah Gaston, director of the Childhood Hunger Initiative for the nonprofit Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said the changes make it harder for needy Kansas to get food assistance.

“This isn’t about telling people to quit their jobs so that they can have this easy life on welfare, it’s about people who need the benefits not knowing that they exist or how to get them,” Gaston said.