Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is talking up another of his experiments.
He calls it “lifting people out of poverty.”
Others prefer to describe it as “kicking people off of food stamps.”
Either way, it’s getting a lot of attention, mostly because of a report recently made public by the Foundation for Government Accountability, an advocacy group in Naples, Fla., that seeks to block Medicaid expansion and urges states to tighten eligibility for social service programs, among other things.
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Brownback touted the report at a news conference Thursday. Kansas, he said, would become a nationwide model. Articles appearing on conservative websites are predicting the same thing.
But the report and the Kansas experiment have some problems.
Three years ago Brownback became one of the first governors to end a waiver that exempted certain people from completing work requirements in order to obtain food stamps, also known as SNAP benefits, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Almost all states used the waiver as a way to cope with high unemployment during the Great Recession.
On Dec. 31, 2013, nearly 13,000 Kansas SNAP recipients found themselves cut off from food aid. Or “freed from welfare,” as the report’s authors explain it.
The exiled recipients are “able-bodied adults without children,” an easy target for welfare opponents. The very label makes them sound like potato chip munching couch surfers, although their reality is much more complicated. Brownback’s order required them to attend job-training programs or work for at least 20 hours a week to qualify for more than three months of food stamps over a three-year period.
That sounds reasonable, and it is the federal standard for states without waivers. The problem occurs when groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability suggest that abruptly booting people off aid programs will reap magical results.
The group’s finding that almost 60 percent of able-bodied adults on food stamps were employed a year later is good news. But it would be more meaningful with comparison data from an earlier period.
Long before Brownback’s edict, data analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that advocates for assistance for the poor, had shown that 75 percent of “able-bodied” SNAP recipients held jobs in either the year before seeking food stamps, the year after or both. Half of them worked within a month of receiving food aid.
People seek assistance for a reason. Research has shown that at least a third of adults without dependents who seek food-stamp assistance suffer from a physical, mental or psychiatric disorder. They don’t qualify for disability benefits, but they’re not turning cartwheels either.
As a group, they have low education levels. More than a third have felony convictions. Six in 10 have no valid driver’s license, and almost half lack access to reliable transportation.
Obviously, they would all be better off with good-paying jobs. But that requires a huge lift in the form of education, training, transportation and other services. Kansas, which can’t meet basic expenses, is in no shape to provide that help.
Barbara Shelly writes for the Kansas City Star.