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Why Kansas makes it harder to qualify for food assistance than most other states

Lemons in a display at Walmart.
Blaise Mesa
/
Kansas News Service
Kansas is one of the last states in the country that has not yet adopted broad-based categorical eligibility.

Most other states have expanded limits on the value of savings and assets people can own and still get food stamps.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers have continued to pass on a federal policy that could make more people eligible for food assistance programs. Now, the state is one of the last in the country that has not yet adopted it.

The policy has to do with how much value people can have in assets and still receive food stamps. The flexibility allows families to have more assets and still be eligible for food assistance, something that especially benefits older people or families caring for elderly relatives.

So far, 41 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have adopted the more flexible rules, including conservative states like Texas, Florida and Alabama. Those states have even raised the minimum thresholds for eligibility as part of the program.

Adopting the policy — called broad-based categorical eligibility — would not mean that more people automatically get food assistance. It simply allows states to expand federal guidelines to make more people eligible. Those people would still go through the application process and could be denied.

Current federal policy cuts off benefits to anyone making too much. That’s $1,133 in monthly net income for a household of one or $1,920 for a household of three.

In addition to income limits, people are ineligible for food stamps if they have $2,750 in assets — such as money in savings accounts or the value of cars — or up to $4,250 in assets if at least one person in the household is over 60 or disabled. Dozens of states have waived asset limits and have almost doubled income thresholds because of categorical eligibility.

Haley Kottler, a food policy expert with Kansas Appleseed, said making it harder to get food assistance can have negative affects on families in other ways. A 2017 study from the University of Kansas found that welfare cuts increased the number of foster care cases. A later study further confirmed that expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could decrease the number of foster care cases.

Kottler said asset limits can be especially harmful because it penalizes people for having savings needed for the “curveballs that life often throws at us — car repairs, home repairs, unexpected job loss and family funerals, just to name a few.”

“It is extremely disappointing that state lawmakers have continued to villainize and stigmatize our neighbors that need access to programs like food assistance the most,” she said in an email. “So often Kansas is lagging behind other states when it comes to helping hungry people access food.”

Kansas lawmakers appear unlikely to make it easier to access SNAP. The state has only added on more requirements to get food assistance, like expanding age ranges for work requirements and increasing the minimum number of hours someone has to work.

The state also set up a welfare reform committee to continue to look at changes. Francis Awerkamp, the Republican chair of that committee, didn’t respond to requests for comment about what lawmakers want to do when they return to Topeka in January.

Republicans have said those changes incentivize more people to get jobs and help lift them out of poverty. In 2016, when Kansas passed the HOPE Act, a wide-ranging bill with a host of restrictions on welfare programs, then-Republican governor Sam Brownback said this would be good for low-income people.

“It’s helped people get out of poverty. It’s helped people have more income and in some cases it’s helped people get back their dignity to get back into the labor force,” Brownback said in 2016.

Gina Plata-Nino, deputy director for SNAP at the Food Research and Action Center, looks at SNAP policies across the country. She didn’t have glowing reviews of the Kansas program.

She said expanding eligibility has been a positive thing for other states. Not only does it make programs more flexible for users, but it reduces the administrative burdens on states.

“They’re still making sure everyone who’s getting in is eligible, but they don’t have to go through additional hoops,” Plata-Nino said. “So I will say that states that have done it, do report being more administratively flexible and able to concentrate on the ongoing issues.”

A majority of SNAP recipients are kids, and she said making it harder to get benefits could hurt people who have no real way of making money.

“At the end of the day, rates of food insecurity are rising and people are hungry,” Plata-Nino said. “It’s just up to the state to figure out how they’re going to feed them and meet those needs.”

If you or someone you know is on food assistance, reach out to blaise@kcur.org to share your story. 

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. 

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.