Unemployed and low-income people in several states will begin to see changes in access to their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in coming weeks. But those changes are not a result of the government shutdown, nor do they stem from the House’s recent vote to cut $39 billion from the anti-hunger program. Instead, Republican-controlled states are choosing to make the cuts on their own, even as the Department of Agriculture says it will continue funding the benefits formerly known as food stamps through the federal funding freeze.
Kansas this week led the way with its decision to end food stamps for adults without children. Since the passage of the 2009 Recovery Act, the federal government has funded states to waive the ’90s welfare reform-era work requirements for childless adults who receive SNAP benefits. The waivers are intended to provide relief to people in states with high unemployment.
As of Tuesday, Kansas will push unemployed childless adults off the food assistance rolls if they fail to find a part-time job or enroll in a job training program.
"We believe that work is the most effective path out of poverty and welfare benefits are not designed to be a permanent solution," Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) spokesperson Theresa Freed says. "They’re designed to be a bridge for people to be on their feet and be self sufficient."
Kansas is joined by Oklahoma, which will make a similar shift later this month, and Wisconsin, which will limit the program starting next summer. Two other states, Delaware and Utah, have already refused the waivers. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the change in Kansas is expected to impact 20,000 childless adults under the age of 50 who are physically able to work. In Oklahoma, 47,000 people could be affected, and Wisconsin’s refusal to accept the waiver will potentially impact more than 70,000.
Anti-hunger advocates say that cutting people off the program will not suddenly create jobs for unemployed adults.
Debi Kreutzman, community relations manager at the Kansas Food Bank, says the cuts will increase the level of need while doing little to make families self-sufficient.
"These cuts are going to make it harder," Kreutzman says. "Our food pantry partners are going to have to gear up and get ready for these cuts in terms of increased need for food."
No More Outreach
Kansas is not just pushing people off the food stamp rolls. On Tuesday morning, Kreutzman and her colleagues arrived at the Food Bank to find a letter in their inbox from the state DCF announcing the immediate end to a food stamp outreach program.
According to a state spokesperson, last year Kansas accepted $71,528 dollars from the federal government for an initiative to help rural and otherwise disconnected populations enroll in the food stamp program.
This week, the Kansas DCF abruptly ended its participation in that program, and it will no longer pull those federal dollars. The end of the program also means the state will not extend the contracts it signed with non-profit and community organizations like the Kansas Food Bank, which made weekly and monthly trips into far-off parts of the state to reach eligible unenrolled families.
Kreutzman estimates that since the Food Bank’s first contract two years ago, the group has helped about 150 families enroll each year.
"Our outreach focused on rural areas in the state, small counties, where the Department of Children and Family Services does not have offices," Kreutzman says. "We’d find people who needed help but just didn’t know how to enroll or would get overwhelmed with the 12-page application, or who were too ashamed to sign up."
Department for Children and Families spokesperson Theresa Freed says these efforts were simply inconsistent with the state’s commitment to shrink the number of people receiving any sort of government assistance.
"By actively encouraging people to get on welfare, that’s counter to what we’re encouraging. We believe that there are plenty of jobs available in Kansas."
Though Kansas unemployment has declined to less than 6 percent, down from a 7.5 percent recession high, the gains are not equally shared. Communities of color are more likely to be unemployed and locked out of work. Nationally, black workers face rates of unemployment twice that of whites. And long-term unemployment has hit workers of color harder than white workers. In Kansas, blacks and Latinos are nearly three times as likely as whites to be poor.
Though Washington’s House Republicans hope to dramatically shrink the the number of people receiving food assistance–their proposed cuts would cast 4 million from the rolls–the Obama administration has continued to support a strong food stamp program. Before the government went into shutdown this week, the Agriculture Department told states that it would continue to fund the waivers into October (the announcement can’t be accessed because the USDA website is out of order until the government opens shop again). But Kansas and several states with Republican leadership are refusing the federal dollars, moving in the direction that their Beltway counterparts currently can’t.