Welfare Reform Committee focuses on making life harder for Kansans

When the 2023 Kansas legislative session began just over a month ago, a new committee was on the agenda — the House Welfare Reform Committee. So far, it’s gone as myself and other advocates expected in Kansas, where lawmakers have tried year after year to add barriers to vital family support programs.

Harmful misconceptions and stereotypes about the Kansas families who rely on these programs have been evident in the pointed questions asked again and again and in the requested information from state agencies. The committee has focused on hyperbolic rhetoric of “fraud,” “deadbeat dads,” and “people who just don’t want to work.”

The benefit programs that support low-income Kansans need changes, but not the kind of changes this committee seems set on.

Family support programs should be accessible to every Kansas family who is eligible. They should be able to access health insurance; pay for the groceries they need; and find and afford reliable, safe child care. When these programs are allowed to work as designed, they offer temporary help that can lift families out of poverty and lead to improved health and educational outcomes for kids. They can help keep families together so fewer kids are placed in foster care. This is exactly what our safety net system should be doing for Kansans, but it doesn’t.

Instead of pursuing policies that would increase access to these supports, the Welfare Reform Committee is focusing its time and effort on adding barriers to already- complex programs. Last week, members set their sights on the food assistance program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

SNAP is our first line of defense against hunger and one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in the country. Unfortunately, the Kansas Legislature has repeatedly hampered the food assistance program’s ability to help the Kansans who need it. So far, this year is no different.

The committee held a recent hearing on House Bill 2141, which would require noncustodial parents to fully cooperate with child support to receive food assistance. Those parents also would be disqualified for any month in which they miss or only partially pay a child support payment, or in which they have any child support arrearages.

It’s hard to believe that going hungry would make it easier for any struggling parent to afford child support.

To qualify for food assistance in the first place, household income has to be at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. For a family with one parent and two children, that is just $32,318 a year. And because the Legislature has refused to raise our minimum wage, that single parent would have to work more than two full-time jobs at Kansas minimum wage to reach that maximum income level.

Consider that same single-parent household with two kids receiving food assistance. The parent, a father, has a third child who lives with her other parent. Dad pays child support regularly, but then one of his kids is sick and he can’t find child care, so he misses a few days of work. He has to choose between keeping his electricity on at home or paying the full support amount, so he makes a partial child support payment that month.

If HB 2141 were in place, this hardship would lead to his removal from the food assistance program not just until the next time he makes a full payment, but also until he catches up on the portion he missed.

This requirement would compound his temporary difficulty. When a parent is removed from food assistance, the entire household’s benefit amount will go down. What was a temporary rough patch becomes a months-long spiral for this dad and his children, who all now have a smaller food budget. Because of how food assistance benefits are calculated, dad’s disqualification could even make the entire household completely ineligible for food assistance.

There are many such short-term hardships. Under this legislation, they would push already- temporary, barely supplemental benefits even lower.

Several Kansas advocates stood up for families by testifying against this punitive, ineffective bill because we know it would not be good for parents or their children. We envision a future where every Kansas family has what they need to support their children, but with proposals like this one the Kansas Legislature continues to stand in the way.

Erin Melton joined Kansas Action for Children in 2021 to dig into food security policy and its effect on Kansas kids. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, Kansas Reflector Opinion guidelines – Kansas Reflector