Out-of-state group’s drive to limit federal benefits in Kansas meets pointed opposition

By: - March 10, 2022 2:25 pm

Karen Siebert, of Harvesters, testifies in opposition of restrictions for food assistance during a hearing Thursday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Harvesters policy adviser Karen Siebert questioned members of a Senate health panel Thursday about who would benefit from proposed new restrictions on access to federal food and medical assistance administered by the state of Kansas.

The changes won’t help Kansas taxpayers, she said, who would be on the hook for an estimated $27 million in bureaucratic expenses to implement Senate Bill 501.

The legislation also wouldn’t help low-income families who are already struggling to put food on the table, grocers who benefit from the $300 million in federal tax dollars that flow into the state from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food pantries such as Harvesters that will have to undertake the burden of feeding insecure Kansas adults and their children.

“The folks that run these pantries, most of whom are volunteers, many of whom are senior citizens, serve their communities and their neighbors tirelessly,” Siebert said as she appeared before members of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. “They’re passionate and committed and hardworking and creative. But even they can’t take five loaves and two fishes and feed 5,000.”

Who does benefit from the changes? She answered that question in written testimony she provided to the committee.

“Apparently, they help an organization in Florida,” Siebert said.

That was a reference to the Opportunity Solutions Project, a lobbying arm of the Koch-connected Foundation for Government Accountability that advocates in statehouses across the country for restrictions to Medicaid and food assistance, as well as unemployment aid. In Kansas, the group also has lobbied for changes in election law.

Sam Adolphsen, of the Opportunity Solutions Project, testifies in support of making it more difficult for low-income families to receive assistance for food and medical needs. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Sam Adolphsen, a visiting fellow at Opportunity Solutions Project, was the only supporter of the bill to appear before the Senate committee.

“The bill will protect welfare benefits for the truly needy,” Adolphsen said, appearing by video from Maine. “And it will help move able-bodied Kansans from welfare to work.”

The bill would attempt to limit Medicaid health insurance to pregnant women and children. Currently, coverage also is available to families who live in poverty — for a family of three, the threshold for annual income is $8,751 — as well as former foster care children and people needing treatment for breast or cervical cancer.

To receive food assistance, the bill would require participation in an employment and training program, implement a 10-day window for reporting work changes, and impose an in-depth verification of income, residency, age, household composition, caretaker status and other information. Currently, recipients attest to meeting those standards.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment estimated the bill would cost the agency $2 million to implement. The Department for Children and Families estimated costs totaling $3.2 million to manage the mandatory training program, $10.4 million for staff to handle new reporting requirements contained in the bill, and $12 million for changes in computer systems and additional staff to deal with data-sharing requirements.

The costs of new inspections required for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office and local law enforcement are unclear.

Adolphsen disputed the estimated costs, saying the state could find more efficient ways to implement changes.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, tried to question the relevancy of Adolphsen’s testimony. She was cut off by the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, when she asked if Adolphsen had ever been to Kansas.

“Sen. Pettey, come on,” Hilderbrand said. “Let’s not give a litmus test to every conferee that comes up about the location of where they live. Let’s stick with the bill context.”

Pettey said “it’s important to think about Kansas because we’re talking about legislation that’s going to very adversely impact Kansans.”

Forty individuals submitted testimony in opposition to the legislation, and several who appeared in person disputed Adolphsen’s claims that tens of thousands of Kansans who receive benefits could be working instead.

Siebert said federal rules already require recipients of food assistance to work at least 20 hours a week, with limited exceptions. In Kansas, that means 91% of the “able-bodied adults” who receive benefits are already working.

John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children, said to qualify for food assistance in Kansas, a family of three cannot have an income of more than $28,548 and will receive $1.40 per meal per person in benefits.

Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, questioned the work ethic of people who receive benefits. Based on feedback from employers, Gossage said, some people are just filling out job applications to satisfy a requirement and have no intention of getting a job.

“One of the best things we could do is help them get back to work,” Gossage said. “Take them off these programs, and give them that pride. There’s a certain pride that we have here in Kansas of being able to take care of yourself, being able to be self-sustaining, especially if you’re capable.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said policies like the ones included in SB501 don’t help to raise people out of poverty. Instead, Rieber said, “they force people off the rolls through onerous documentation.”

“Getting people off the rolls is not the same thing as giving them a hand up,” Rieber said. “It’s just disrespectful to the people who are struggling in our lives to treat them as cheats and frauds, and to continually make them jump through hoops to maintain their sparse eligibility.”

Lindsie Ford, of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, testifies in opposition to restrictions for Medicaid and food assistance. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Lindsie Ford, of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the legislation would create burdens for women who have legitimate needs for assistance.

“I just want to point out that this bill ignores some of the basic realities for those who are living in poverty, some of the stresses that are associated with that,” Ford said. “Specifically, when we talk about young mothers and children, who are frequently people who avail themselves of our services, they’re often in the midst of crisis when they come to us, and they are dealing with some really traumatic events that have caused a good deal of stress.”

Steven Anderson, the Medicaid inspector general, was the only individual other than Adolphsen who supported the legislation.

In written testimony, Anderson said his office, which is under the Kansas attorney general, has struggled to determine if any welfare recipients have won a lottery jackpot of more than $10,000. A provision in the bill would require the Kansas Lottery and casinos to share data with the inspector general.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.