GOP pushes food assistance work rules for debt deal. What happened when Kansas passed its own?

As Republicans in Congress push to expand work requirements for food assistance as part of a deal to avert a devastating debt default, Kansas offers a preview of what could be in store for the country if they succeed.

Kansas’ Republican-controlled Legislature has expanded work requirements twice in the past two years by overriding Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto, including as recently as last month.

While the latest restrictions won’t go into effect until July, the number of residents receiving aid has been dropping steadily since the first round of new rules was put in place last summer. Kansas was already one of the most difficult states for low-income people to access food assistance.

The U.S. House in April passed a bill that would raise the debt ceiling, the maximum amount of money the federal government is authorized to borrow in order to pay for already-approved spending. But it also contained conservative priorities, including expanded work rules for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican whose party holds a narrow House majority, has used the bill as a starting point in negotiations with Democratic President Joe Biden, raising the possibility the SNAP provisions will be part of a final compromise package to raise the debt ceiling. The United States could default as early as June 1 without congressional action.

The bill supported by congressional Republicans would expand SNAP’s current 20-hour-per-week work requirement for able-bodied individuals ages 18-49 without children at home to include those up to age 55. Individuals are only allowed to fall below that threshold for three months during a three-year period without losing benefits.

Kansas’ rules actually go further than the House GOP proposal by mandating job training for individuals up to age 59 who aren’t working at least 30 hours a week. Critics say the training requirement, and applying it to older adults, still has the effect of kicking people off benefits by adding more requirements to stay enrolled.

The Kansas Legislature in 2022 voted to apply the job training rule to able-bodied individuals without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 who don’t work at least 30 hours. Since those rules went into effect in July 2022, the state’s SNAP caseload has fallen by 13,340 people, or 3.8%, as of March, the last month for which data is available. During the same period the prior year, enrollment fell only 2.2%.

So far this year, the number of able-bodied individuals without dependents enrolled in the program has also dropped from 14,419 to 12,997, according to data from the Kansas Department for Children and Families. In the year before the new rules, the number enrolled increased by nearly 700.

“I think just the very fact that we are having this discussion in the context of a debt limit negotiation where they want to cut costs – while they may say the goal is to get people to work, there’s nothing in this bill that is helping people get a job,” Karen Siebert, advocacy and public policy advisor at Harvesters, a food bank that serves the Kansas City region, said of the proposal from congressional Republicans.

“This is all about cutting the budget and moving people off of food assistance.”

Kansas Republicans say the state’s policy is appropriate at a moment when the demand for labor is strong across the country.

“Businesses across the country are struggling to find workers to fill open positions. Common-sense benefit requirements for able-bodied workers like participation in a training program or a 30-hour work week, like we have in Kansas, help folks get back on their feet and into a career while also helping solve workforce development issues,” said Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas, said work requirements right now may not result in huge caseload reductions because the economy is at roughly full employment. The national unemployment rate is at 3.4% and jobs are relatively plentiful – making it easier for individuals to follow work rules or leave programs because they no longer need the benefits.

Even before the new rules, Kansas already ranks 49th among states and Washington, D.C., in low-income individuals’ access to food assistance, according to 2021 rankings by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the latest available. Only Utah and Wyoming ranked lower.

“Kansas has adopted some of the most restrictive social safety net policies in the country,” Ginther said.

Over more than 10 years, Kansas Republicans have implemented a series of welfare restrictions that have tightened access to aid, including food assistance and cash assistance. The most significant changes came under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed bills with strict limits on how long residents can receive aid and how it can be used.

Since 2013, the number of people receiving food assistance in Kansas has declined by more than 118,000. The number of cash assistance recipients is down by more than 14,500.

State Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican, acknowledged that the number of people accessing food assistance in Kansas had reduced but cautioned against viewing that negatively without data as to why those individuals left food assistance.

“On the surface that could be really good news. That means people are making more money and they don’t need SNAP benefits,” Humphries said.

The purpose of the requirements for work hours or training hours, she said, was to help Kansas build the skills they need to get higher-paying jobs.

“There’s no doubt that education and work training are the things that move people out of poverty,” she said. “It’s to help people thrive.”

If job opportunities are sparse, Humphries noted, people could reach their work hour requirements by volunteering or seeking a waiver from the Department of Children and Families.

Siebert said those calling for more work requirements “are assuming that motivation is the barrier.” In reality, she said those trying to work and keep their food assistance face many barriers, including sporadic job schedules.

“I may want to work 35 hours a week but if my boss doesn’t have that number of hours available to me, I can’t control that, I can’t fix that,” Siebert said.

Kelly, a Democrat in her second term as governor, supports rolling back the restrictions but hasn’t been able to convince Kansas Republican leaders to advance measures to expand access. Spokespeople for Kelly didn’t comment on Tuesday, but in a message accompanying her veto of new work rules last month, she painted the requirements as another obstacle for residents needing help.

“Leaders from both parties should be looking for ways to help people afford the basics, not burdening our hardworking Kansans who are just trying to get by,” Kelly wrote. “With inflation causing the prices of goods and services to skyrocket, Kansans need relief, not further barriers.”

Whether Congress expands work requirements across the country or not, those who work with vulnerable Kansans say the current restrictions in the state risk leaving the state exposed if a recession leaves residents out of work. Economists fear even a short default could push the United States into a recession.

Mandatory requirements put reporting requirements on individuals and state agencies add red tape that raises the risk of those in need falling through the cracks, said Ed Bolen, director of SNAP state strategies at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

“When times are tough and more people need help, that kind of a mandatory system tends to either break down or have a lot of people – the end result is always the low-income person gets stuck,” Bolen said. “They’re the ones that lose benefits.”