Kansas food stamp policy becomes a political tangle

The Kansas City StarMarch 15, 2012 

Months after a new Kansas policy cut food stamps going to thousands of children, some lawmakers are mounting efforts to help those families.

But they’re finding it’s difficult when the issue involves families with some members who are living in the country illegally. Legislative leaders don’t appear eager to tackle any illegal immigration issue in an election year.

Earlier this week, senators in Topeka proposed an amendment to the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services budget that ultimately could have restored some aid to the children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are illegal immigrants. But on Wednesday, the amendment was dropped.

Separately, a bill filed in the House would help households where children’s benefits were reduced after SRS changed the way it counts income for food stamp eligibility. The bill doesn’t have a listed sponsor — an indication of how controversial the matter is — and the committee leader wouldn’t say who’s behind it. A hearing is scheduled for today, but SRS officials plan to challenge the bill.

“There is obviously politics in this, which is a tragedy because we are talking about hungry citizen kids,” said Melinda Lewis, a public policy consultant for El Centro, an anti-poverty organization in Kansas City, Kan.

“What you are seeing ... is legislators trying to use powers available to them to register their disappointment of SRS taking this action unilaterally,” Lewis said. “They’re trying to send different kinds of signals to SRS to induce change.”

The department made the policy change in October because officials said families with noncitizen members were getting preferential treatment over all-citizen families. By law, illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps. However, U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants can be.

The state now counts the entire family income to determine if only some of its members are eligible for food stamps. That means a low-income family of five made up of two undocumented parents and three U.S. children must show that its total income is close to the poverty level for a family of three — not a family of five — to access food stamps.

Before the switch, Kansas did what the vast majority of states do when counting income: In households with members ineligible to receive food stamps (including non-U.S. citizens), Kansas adjusted the income for the reduced household size.

“These are U.S. citizen children,” said Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., who proposed the budget amendment this week. “They have no say in who their parents are, what households they live in and who lives in those households.

“Children who are vulnerable and have no voice of their own are being punished for something they had no involvement in.”

The latest numbers from SRS show that since the policy change, 1,105 households with about 2,200 U.S. children lost food stamps. More families had their benefits reduced.

SRS officials say the bottom line is that the families now have too much income to qualify.

“Under the new policy, the only reason individuals and households are denied access to the benefit program is because their household incomes are higher than the USDA-mandated threshold,” said Angela de Rocha, SRS spokeswoman. Of the 1,105 households, she said, 236 reapplied for benefits, and more than half who reapplied received them.

Advocates counter that the families’ income didn’t change, yet U.S. children who received food stamps before no longer do.“It’s like SRS is pretending all of the family’s income is available just to feed the citizen members of the household,” Lewis said. “They are pretending that those immigrant members of the family don’t exist, that they don’t eat.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly referred to as food stamps, is a federal program but administered by the states.

Kansas is one of a handful of states to adopt the new way of counting income. The others include Utah and Nebraska.

Utah changed its policy in July 2010. The goal was to be fair across the board, to count income of households with noncitizens the same way it would households with all U.S. citizens, said Curt Stewart, public information officer for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

At the time, about 7,800 households were affected, with benefits either terminated or reduced, Stewart said. “It gave us parity across the board so everyone is treated the same,” he said.

In Kansas, Kultala’s amendment would have required SRS to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow for an income eligibility policy that would treat all U.S.-citizen children equally. One possible waiver could allow for a cap on benefits so a household with some illegal immigrants could never get more in food stamps than a household with all U.S. citizens.

Though a subcommittee voted to include the amendment earlier this week, it was removed on Wednesday.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who heads the Ways and Means Committee, said Kultala’s proposal was problematic because it raised questions about what would happen if USDA didn’t grant a waiver.

“We felt like we had too many loose ends there to try to figure that out,” McGinn said. She said it was a consensus decision by the subcommittee to remove the provision.

Kultala said Wednesday afternoon that she was disappointed by the decision.

“I think there is a perception this has to do with illegal immigrants getting something and it’s not. It’s about U.S. citizen children. This is all about the children for me.”

Advocates say they continue to see families suffering because of the change.

Some parents now must work two and three jobs to buy food for their families, said Elena Morales of El Centro. She’s assisted one Kansas City area woman who had full custody of her U.S.-citizen children but returned them to their father because she couldn’t afford to feed them.

Morales said she and other advocates are working to reassure many illegal immigrants that, despite the stricter SRS policy and the frustrations they hear, their U.S. children could still be eligible for benefits.

“These families are afraid. They are between a rock and a hard place,” Morales said. “They’re still hurting. Now they have to pay more for a babysitter, leave their children with an older sibling. Because they have to work two and three jobs, mom isn’t there to care for her children.”

Advocates thought that when Kansas officials discovered that thousands of children were being affected, things would change.

“Frankly, it’s taken longer than we had hoped,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, an advocacy group based in Topeka. “And in the interim, lots of children are going hungry.”

To read more, visit www.kansascity.com.

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