Politics & Government

Kansas Gov. Brownback to review state's food stamp policy

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday that he would review a new policy that has eliminated food stamps for hundreds of low-income children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are illegal immigrants.

The Star reported Sunday how the new way the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services counts income for food stamp eligibility has affected families across Kansas. Since the new policy went into effect Oct. 1, more than 1,000 households have lost their food stamps. Many said they had relied heavily on benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Brownback told reporters Tuesday that he would look into the new policy and talk to SRS workers in the field to see how families have been affected.

Advocates for low-income families were encouraged by Brownback’s words, although the governor’s spokeswoman said no changes are planned.

“I’m not sure he really knew about this policy and what was happening to the children,” said Sister Therese Bangert of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. “I’m confident that he’s going to seriously look at this, and those children who are hungry because of this policy will be hungry no more.

“ He’s been a leader on a number of human rights issues when he was a senator. And for children to have food is a basic human right.”

The governor’s office responded to questions from The Star through email. Though Brownback has requested an update on the new policy, he “does not plan to make any additional changes,” spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag wrote. “Any member of the Legislature who wants to offer an amendment to the budget regarding this issue certainly may.”

Under the new policy, SRS now includes the entire income of all members of a household. Before the change, SRS counted only a portion if one or more members did not provide proof of legal U.S. residency.

By law, illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps. However, U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants can be.

SRS officials say the policy change, which is allowed under federal guidelines, is fair. They say the old formula gave some households with illegal immigrants more benefits than some households with all U.S. citizens.

“The policy decision to include all incomes of adult members of a household has nothing to do with cutting aid off for children of individuals who decline to provide proof of legal presence in the United States,” Jones-Sontag said in her email response. “It is about properly calculating household income and treating all citizens equally. The Governor is committed to ensuring the state’s limited resources target those who truly qualify for benefits, based on their total household income.”

The statement Tuesday was the first time anyone from the governor’s office had commented on the food-stamp issue. No one returned calls for The Star’s story that ran Sunday.

SNAP is a federal program that is managed by the states. According to the Food and Research Action Committee website, the federal government pays 100 percent of SNAP/food stamp program benefits. Federal and state governments share administrative costs, with the federal government contributing nearly 50 percent.

States can choose how they calculate income when determining who qualifies for benefits. Kansas is one of only four states opting to use the new formula for counting income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The others are Arizona, Utah and Nebraska.

Since news hit about the new policy and its ramifications, Kansas Action for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group out of Topeka, has heard from several community leaders outraged over the change. The group was hoping Tuesday that the governor would seriously look at the switch and what it was doing to families.

“Ultimately we are interested in seeing any policy changes that allow children to receive the basic nutrition that will help them develop into young healthy children and adults,” said April Holman, director of policy and research for Kansas Action for Children. “We hope that this policy is something the governor will reconsider, because it’s so important to Kansas children.”

According to information provided by SRS, from Oct. 1 to the end of 2011, once incomes were recalculated using the new policy, benefits were eliminated for 1,042 households.

SRS says it doesn’t know how many U.S. children living in those households no longer receive benefits.

However, an SRS report shows that in the first month, from October to November, 2,066 children dropped from the food stamp rolls in Kansas.

Though the governor’s office has said he has no plans to make additional changes, some still are hopeful about his review.

“It’s encouraging to us, because to me the reason he’s going to review it is not only that he’s been made aware of it, but that he’s experienced what we experienced,” said Melinda Lewis, a public policy consultant for El Centro, an anti-poverty agency in Kansas City, Kan. “And that’s an outpouring of concern, that these children are our children and their hunger is our problem.”

What worries John Cook, a leading child-hunger researcher, is that society will pay a high price in the future because of policies similar to the one the SRS has implemented.

“To do anything that will eliminate children’s support in these times is so counterproductive,” said Cook, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine who has studied child hunger for many years. “These are U.S. children who are going to be the backbone of our work force and communities in the future. These are not children who are going away. We can’t afford not to support them.

“ This can in no way help the state of Kansas,” Cook said. “It will only hurt them.”

To read more, visit www.kansascity.com.