Health Politics

More than 10,000 low-income Kentucky adults were removed from a federal program that helps them buy food after they failed to comply with newly reinstated rules requiring them to either get a job or do volunteer work to keep their benefits.

The rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, have been in place since 1996 when they were signed into law by former Democratic President Bill Clinton. But the federal government will grant exemptions for areas with high poverty or limited job opportunities.

Some eastern Kentucky counties, hit hard by the declining coal industry, have always had a waiver. And following the Great Recession in 2008, the entire state was exempted from the rules, known as work requirements.

Now, with Kentucky’s annual unemployment rate at its lowest point since 2000, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has been letting those waivers expire. All but eight of Kentucky’s 120 counties now have the requirements in place. The exceptions are eight counties in eastern Kentucky that are participating in a federal pilot program.

The rules require adults ages 18 to 59 with no children or disabilities to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week. Adults who don’t show they are meeting the requirements for three consecutive months will lose benefits.

More than half a million people in Kentucky qualify for SNAP benefits, a population that has been steadily declining as the economy improves. About 54,000 of those people are eligible for the work requirements. Of those, slightly more than 10,000 are no longer part of the program for failing to comply with the rules, according to data analyzed by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and Kentucky Voices for Health, advocacy groups concerned about the work requirements.

The results offer a glimpse of how similar requirements might impact the state’s Medicaid population. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s administration approved new rules that will require Medicaid recipients between the ages of 19 to 64 who have no children and no disabilities to work, volunteer or go to school for at least 80 hours per month.

“It’s exactly what I would have expected. It’s just the start. … People have only started hitting the wall and losing their benefits,” said Jason Dunn, policy analyst at Kentucky Voices for Health who directed Kentucky’s SNAP program from 2011 to 2017 under the administrations of Bevin and former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Kentucky’s SNAP program is run by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Cabinet spokesman Doug Hogan said the program has “appropriate exemptions and good cause exceptions for not meeting requirements.”

“No one loses access to SNAP benefits, although some beneficiaries may choose not to comply, or cannot comply because they are already working but not reporting income,” Hogan said.

Hogan pointed to Kansas, a state that let most of its waivers expire before Kentucky did. A study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a think tank that supports the work requirements, showed the rate of adults without children or disabilities who were working tripled after the requirements were put in place.

“We anticipate similar positive outcomes,” Hogan said.

Dunn criticized that report. He noted it was done in 2014, at the height of the recession recovery, when many people were returning to work because the economy was improving.

“To say that implementing the work requirement caused them to go back to work pretty much ignores the reality of the economy at the time,” he said.

It’s unclear how the requirement has impacted Kentucky. The Kentucky Association of Food Banks has seven distribution centers that partner with 800 local charitable feeding organizations. Executive Director Tamara Sandberg said they have “absolutely” seen an increased demand for food assistance. But she noted her members “consistently struggle to keep pace with the demand,” saying it’s unclear if a recent surge is related to the work requirements in the SNAP program.

“It’s always been a struggle, and there has been a surge recently, too, that we certainly suspect is related to this,” she said. “People are often amazed. When they come to a food pantry, they see shelves stacked to the ceiling. It’s gone within a day or two.”