Kansas welfare officials announced today that they will not renew a federal waiver that has allowed an estimated 20,000 people without jobs to receive food assistance without having to meet federal work requirements.
Officials from Gov. Sam Brownback's administration said it's an attempt to encourage work over welfare dependency, but local officials in Douglas County said it could have devastating effects on many of the area's long-term unemployed.
"It's sickening," said Jeremy Farmer, CEO of the local food bank Just Food, and a Lawrence city commissioner. "There's a perception that exists among many people in our community, in our state and in our country that people in poverty who are in need of food and are hungry are taking advantage of the system. Those abuses of the system don't happen as much as people think they do."
The program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, began in the 1960s as a way to combat hunger and malnutrition among children and families with little or no income. Benefits are paid entirely through the federal government, but the program is administered through state welfare agencies and states share in some of the administrative costs.
Statewide in July, nearly 319,000 individuals in Kansas received SNAP assistance, including 8,794 people in Douglas County.
Under a welfare reform measure passed in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, the federal government began requiring able-bodied individuals with no dependent to work at least 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a job training program.
In 2009, however, Congress passed a stimulus bill in the wake of the Great Recession that included, among other things, a provision allowing states with abnormally high unemployment rates to waive that rule.
According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, that has enabled as many as 20,000 Kansas adults to receive SNAP benefits without having to meet the work requirement. The agency was not able to provide those estimates on a county-by-county level.
“We know that employment is the most effective way to escape poverty,” DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said in a statement today. “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.”
DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said many individuals remain exempt from the work requirement, including people with disabilities, the elderly and pregnant women.
Kansas' waiver expires Sept. 30, and state officials could have applied to renew it. But state officials said they decided not to ask for a renewal, which means starting Oct. 1, able-bodied adults without dependents will have three months to come into compliance with the work requirement or lose their benefits.
Commerce Secretary Pat George said he thinks the state's economy has recovered enough that it no longer needs the waiver.
“Over the past several years, Kansas has built a great business environment," George said. "As a result, our state is enjoying strong job growth."
In July, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Kansas was 5.9 percent, compared to a national rate of 7.4 percent.
"And yet, people are still out of work," said Douglas County Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan. "I fail to see how taking benefits away from people who are hungry is going to help them find a job in this economy."