Topeka A top Kansas social services official argued Monday that a new policy reducing or denying food stamps to hundreds of U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants is fairer to tens of thousands of other families, and some Republican legislators said they agreed with the change.
Michelle Schroeder, public policy director for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, also told the House Appropriations Committee that the change, introduced by her agency Oct. 1, was permitted under federal regulations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the food stamp program, though states administer it.
The change affects how household incomes are calculated to determine eligibility for the food stamps program, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Previously, Kansas, like most other states, discounted a portion of a family’s income if some of its members couldn’t prove they were in the U.S. legally.
SRS calculates that 1,042 households with illegal immigrant family members have lost benefits since Oct. 1, affecting 2,066 U.S-born children, although the agency couldn’t say how many lost their food stamps specifically because of the policy change. Advocates for immigrants and the poor have been critical, and Democrats pushed the Appropriations Committee to seek explanations from Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.
Schroeder said households with illegal immigrants on average were allowed to earn an additional $908 a month income and still qualify for food stamps — putting them ahead of 106,000 households with no illegal immigrants that didn’t qualify. About 141,000 households now receive SNAP benefits.
“We just felt it inherently unfair that U.S. citizens were held to a higher standard,” Schroeder said. “We wanted to move to a system that was equal.”
Schroeder said only Arizona, Nebraska and Utah have the same income-calculation policy as Kansas.
Some legislators have suggested SRS could have modified the old policy without costing some children their food stamps, but Schroeder said federal rules essentially gave Kansas only two choices, keeping the old policy or imposing the one that took effect in October.
Under the old policy, if a household had two working parents who couldn’t show they were in the U.S. legally and two U.S.-born children, SRS counted only half the parents’ income in determining eligibility. As a result, SRS officials said, families with illegal immigrants could qualify more easily for SNAP benefits than families with no illegal immigrants.
The new Kansas policy made sense to some Republicans, who control the committee and the Legislature.
“To me, this is a fairness issue, and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican.
Schroeder said SRS officials are looking at whether they can use another USDA program that provides food to food banks and other charities to increase supplies for the communities most affected by the change in the food stamp policy.
Critics of the policy were not satisfied. Several Democrats said they want legislators to further review the issue, and Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, wondered whether the change violated federal civil rights law, a suggestion Schroeder said was unfounded.
And Rep. Jerry Henry, a Cummings Democrat, said: “I think we’ve seen that there are some families struggling with this new policy.”
Several critics also noted that the state Department of Agriculture is seeking a waiver from federal officials so that agricultural businesses can hire illegal immigrants to fill jobs that remain unfilled.
“Immigrant labor is integral to Kansas business right now,” said Sister Therese Bangert, a lobbyist for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. “I would hope that we would always err on the side of feeding children that are hungry and for them to have food security.”