With his political star beginning to tarnish, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) came to Washington on Wednesday to discuss his poverty policies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. At one point, the embattled governor justified his policy of forcing people off of food stamps if they can’t find a job by likening low-income and jobless people to lazy college students.
The event was convened around a policy he pioneered: Reinstating a rigid 20-hour-per-week work requirement that federal law allowed him to waive because unemployment was still high at the time in his state. The rules are duplicative — federal law requires the able-bodied adults targeted by the move to accept reasonable job offers at all times, even when a weekly work-hours waiver is in place — and run counter to a lot of policy thinking about how best to get jobless food stamps recipients back to work.
“You probably went to college. You had a lot of papers you had to write. When do most people do their papers in college? My guess is most of you, if I polled you, you would say the night before it was due,” Brownback said. “That’s just kind of who we are as people. And the work requirement is much the same thing.”
When ThinkProgress asked Brownback how one person’s decision to write a paper is equivalent to a second person deciding to offer her a job, he insisted that jobless Kansans can keep their food stamps just by applying for jobs or enrolling in state work training systems.
But that’s not really how his food stamps policy works.
Brownback was the first of several governors to decide to reinstate a hard and fast 20-hours-per-week work requirement for able-bodied adults with no dependents. The Kansas economy was still in rough enough shape that federal law allowed Brownback to waive those rules, as nearly every state had done during the Great Recession.
Even when those rules are suspended, anyone who gets Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars is required to accept a job if offered one -- a rule that links participation to someone's willingness to work, rather than setting people up to lose their food aid simply because they're unable to secure a job.
And simply applying for jobs is not enough to keep an able-bodied adult without dependents enrolled in SNAP under the rules Brownback touts, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Policy Analyst Ed Bolen said in an email.
"Getting a job might help someone meet the requirement, if it’s more than half time. But, unfortunately, looking for that job doesn’t meet the requirement," Bolen wrote.
If applying for jobs isn't actually enough to maintain someone's good standing before Kansas bureaucrats, at least they can show up to a job training program and hang onto their Top Ramen money, right?
"What happens for those who live 50 miles away from a job resource center or who are working 18 hours a week or who just need more help before they can find a 20 hour a week job?" Bolen added. "This rule doesn't require states to help them. They are just out of luck and get cut off."
States can pick up some extra federal SNAP Education & Training dollars if they guarantee a job training program slot for every single SNAP recipient affected by the work rules who is unable to find a 20-hour-per-week job in time. Colorado, Delaware, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin have all made that promise, according to Bolen's organization. Kansas has not.
Brownback's suggestion that a job search is sufficient or job training slots are immediately available to all is belied by the dramatic dip in food stamps enrollment that occurred when the consequences of his decision became clear at the outset of 2014.
About 15,000 people suddenly dropped off the Kansas SNAP rolls that January -- nearly five times as large a monthly decline in enrollment as is typical from an improving job market without rigid work rules in place. The next month, the rolls returned to their previous rate of shrinkage. The resulting dogleg-shaped chart of enrollment records the initial impact of Brownback's policy.
On Wednesday, the governor claimed those people voluntarily declined food assistance.
"We got a push of people saying, 'Well I don’t wanna do this, I don’t like doing this,' some people saying, 'Look I’m not gonna participate in the program then if that’s the case,'" Brownback told the AEI audience. He did not acknowledge that many of those people lost their food stamps while looking for work or because they couldn't get to a state-sponsored job training classroom. When he wrapped up his remarks, many applauded him warmly.
Brownback's charm may be wearing thin back home. One February poll found Brownback now has lower job approval numbers than President Barack Obama does in Kansas, with 53 percent "very dissatisfied" with the governor and another 16 percent "somewhat dissatisfied." In March, a prominent newspaper in Topeka that had previously supported Brownback against his critics declared his plans a failure that "has adversely affected too many lives."
More recently, Republican lawmakers in the state even started to criticize Brownback. Conservatives in the state Senate are "growing weary" and would "prefer to see some real solutions coming from the governor's office," Senate President Susan Wagle (R) told the Associated Press. Similarly, one House rep from Brownback's party said lawmakers should "[l]et him own it" rather than continuing to provide political cover as the state's budget crisis grinds on.
Author: Alan Pyke