Brownback officials defend Kansas' new food stamp policy

The Kansas City StarJanuary 31, 2012 

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration on Monday fended off suggestions that it is trying to ferret out undocumented immigrants with a new Kansas policy that cuts food stamp benefits for anyone in the country illegally.

Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee, a top official at the state social services agency said the new food stamp policy is only intended to level the playing field between U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants.

Michelle Schroeder, the agency’s policy director, told the committee that the new food stamp policy is intended to eliminate discriminatory elements of the old policy.

“We could have kept the previous policy,” Schroeder told the committee. “We just thought it was better policy to equalize the way we treat income for all households.”

Under the new formula, the state uses the entire income of all members of a household in determining eligibility.

Before the change, the state counted only a portion if one or more members did not provide proof of legal U.S. residence.

State officials maintain that the policy change, which is allowed under federal guidelines, is fair.

The old formula gave households with illegal immigrants on average the ability to earn $900 more a month than U.S. citizens and still receive food stamps.

Social service advocates have criticized the new policy because it has the effect of cutting hundreds of children off the food stamp rolls.

State data show that benefits were cut off for 1,042 households once incomes were recalculated in October.

Although Schroeder billed the policy change as one that focuses on income and not citizenship, some lawmakers said they think there is a belief that the administration is trying to single out illegal immigrants.

“The perception of many people has been that this is another way to go after the undocumented individuals in our state,” said Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat.

Ballard asked Schroeder directly if that is the case. Schroder said it isn’t.

Later in an interview, Ballard said she wants equality for everyone. But she wants more clarity about what’s motivating the administration.

“If that had happened on the other side, I would have been fighting there too, saying, ‘Why are you doing this to a U.S. citizen?’ ” Ballard said.

“We’re going to have to do a better job of making people understand exactly why those new rules are in place. People don’t understand why the new rules are in place.”

Some Republicans on the committee were more sympathetic with the administration, contending it is a good approach to evening out the system.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, the committee chairman, wondered aloud why there wasn’t anyone angry about the old policy.

“Now that there’s outrage from certain groups, I want to find out from those same groups why the outrage wasn’t there last year for the Kansas kids and families that weren’t getting the support,” said Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

Rep. Jerry Henry, a Cummings Democrat, asked the committee to continue to monitor the situation. He wanted to know more about what the state is planning to do for anyone cut off from the food stamp program.

He also wants some of the charitable groups that think the new policy is unfair to explain their positions to the state social services agency. And he wants to know more details about how the state plans to serve the children who are no longer getting food stamps under the policy.

“I want to hear what those answers are as to how we address some of these families,” Henry said. “It’s not just a few kids. We’re talking about a couple thousand kids.”

Schroeder said the state is looking at options, including a commodities program where food is distributed to the poor at more than 500 locations statewide.

To read more, visit www.kansascity.com.

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