SNAP work requirements hurt Kentucky families

Published 3:50 am Thursday, July 11, 2019


Contributing columnist

“You can work really hard and still be really poor. And it sucks.”

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Thus spoke one recipient of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, AKA food stamps) in a recent focus group evaluating Kentucky’s work requirement for SNAP. Deloitte Digital conducted the focus groups, and Jason Dunn, a policy analyst for Kentucky Voices for Health, reported last week (Community forum, Courier Journal, 7/1) on the findings. What were they?

For one thing, contrary to the claim that a work requirement benefits poor people by delivering them from the bondage of welfare, the work reporting requirements for SNAP “hurt the poor.” Readers who have followed critics’ objections to Governor Bevin’s push for a work requirement for Medicaid recipients will not be surprised that 20,000 low-income Kentuckians are now without food assistance because of these reporting requirements.  

The hope behind the requirement in both cases is to trim the rolls of those receiving public assistance.  And the assumption in both cases is that many able-bodied adults who are recipients could be working and are not. (I shall not repeat the reasons for challenging this assumption that have been covered before in this column.) What is the problem this time?

According to Dunn, the five huge poster boards at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services provide an answer. They display messages from those receiving or delivering services. Both cite bureaucratic hurdles that keep people from receiving the help they need. These hurdles include lack of access to new technologies, low wages (Kentucky’s minimum wage requirement is only $7.25 an hour), and the ineffectiveness of the work reporting requirements. Both access to technology and ability to use it are lacking.

Kentucky’s new online Citizen Connect system for reporting was supposed to be a solution to a problem rather than a problem itself. It has been touted by the administration as far better than the one in Arkansas, which was alleged to be hastily put together. The focus groups think otherwise.

Citizen Connect is difficult to use. Would-be recipients of SNAP often lack access to basic technology, and they may lack the tools needed to go on-line and upload the reporting documents by themselves.  Not everyone has the required time and the requisite means of transportation, it turns out, to gain assistance by going to a public library, for example.

A further snag in SNAP is the lack of individualized and fully supported activities (such as training) to meet the requirement. Since participation is the only requirement, case managers are simply told that specific persons are enrolled and whether they are meeting their 20 hours. There is no targeted training assistance, although such programs are available using federal dollars and were in existence in Kentucky until the current administration eliminated them. In this respect, we seem to have regressed rather than progressed. Already-disadvantaged, low-income citizens are being further disadvantaged by the reporting system.

Is there no good news in this report? Yes, there is. It is encouraging that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is looking critically at itself using focus groups and other feedback.  Why do it if you don’t want to improve?

It is also heartening that some of the cited barriers are fixable. Enabling all candidates for SNAP to gain access to the technology and the requisite skills to use it is not a quick or easy task, but progress is makeable with the investment of more time and money. There are also some quicker fixes that are available.

The Citizen Connect system can be made more user friendly in light of the recent feedback. Waivers for those providing care at home for children and seniors that have been discontinued can be reinstated in every county possible. Providers of services can become more aware of the barriers encountered by those who should be prospects for SNAP.  

Why not ask our gubernatorial candidates what they propose in the way changes if any?

There is a further fix. Those of us who are not, at least currently, in need of food stamps would do well to seek deeper understanding of all of the factors that can contribute to people’s need for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Anecdotes about luxury foods in grocery carts blind us to the actual findings of studies about levels of SNAP abuse and may predispose us to diagnose of poverty as solely attributable to lack of initiative.

Reading a history of food stamps in our country will reveal times and instances of rampant abuse, but recent statistics clearly contradict the current horror stories. According to food historian Emelyn Rude, the fraud rate decreased from “about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent” by 2006. This decline has continued with the 3.5% rate of fraud in 2012 reducing to 1.5% today (March 7, 2019).

Enforced work requirements have been alleged to do poor people the favor of liberating them from the clutches of the welfare system. Assessments of who gets dropped from the Medicaid rolls and the SNAP rolls and why, such as the one by James Dunn cited here, can help disabuse us of some highly questionable generalizations about neighbors in need.

As the poster board message states, “You can work really hard and still be really poor.”