Dispute escalates in Kansas over policy change for food assistance

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TOPEKA, Kan. — A dispute is escalating in Kansas between top Republicans and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration over a policy change making it easier for adults who are not working to keep receiving food assistance.

The state Department for Children and Families on Friday released an internal analysis defending the legality of the change, made in May. The department has said the change will help the homeless and young adults aging out of state’s foster care system and that recipients could receive extended benefits through September.

The agency released its analysis in responding to a letter earlier this week from Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He told the department’s top administrator, Secretary Laura Howard, that the change “appears to conflict” with a 2015 state law setting tougher rules for food and cash assistance.

Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature contend the change violates the 2015 law, which included a work requirement and have promised that a committee will review the issue later this year.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said Friday that the department’s legal analysis does not change his mind. He said a lawsuit to block the change “certainly is a possibility,” though a spokesman for Schmidt said only that his office is reviewing the response.

“There’s an intent out there that they were not to skirt the work requirement in any way, and we’re going to continue to press that,” Hawkins said.

The federal government pays for food assistance and covers half of each state’s administrative costs. It generally limits able-bodied adults age 18 to 49 without dependents to three months of assistance within a three-year period if they aren’t working or enrolled in job training.

The 2015 state law specifies the same policy and says the department can’t ask the federal government for a waiver or start a program to avoid the rule. The law codified stricter policies for food and cash assistance that former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration set, making them harder to undo.

The federal government gives states some flexibility to grant exemptions to extend food assistance month by month to people who are about to lose it because they aren’t working. Spokesman Mike Deines said the agency expects to grant about 16,000 extensions through September, each good for one month for one adult, with some recipients receiving three.

The agency’s legal analysis said it is not seeking a waiver of federal rules and, “ascribing to ‘program’ its ordinary and common meaning, the one-time grant of an additional three months of benefits does not fit.”

Kelly was a state senator before becoming governor in January and strongly opposed the 2015 law. The measure gained national attention for telling families they can’t use cash assistance to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic or buy lingerie, with the list of don’ts amounting to several dozen items.

Critics like Kelly contend Brownback’s welfare policies punished poor families. DCF announced this week that it is loosening a work requirement for people receiving state childcare subsidies to cover another 3,000 kids. So far, Republicans are not contesting its legality.

“This is a first step in repairing the safety net that was pulled from vulnerable Kansans during the previous eight years,” the governor said.

Hawkins said Kelly has made her opposition to work requirements clear, but taxpayers don’t want people who can work “just living off of the government.” Republicans argue that the stricter rules promote self-sufficiency.

“We want to help the people that honestly need help, but if you can work, go to work,” he said.



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