The Food Assistance Program in Kansas
Erin Melton | September 9, 2022
SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger in the United States and boosts national and local economies
History of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
What we now know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) began as the Food Stamp Program (FSP) in the 1930s. The program, created to combat the widespread poverty of the Great Depression, provided stamps to be exchanged for food. The FSP ended in the 1940s but was resurrected in 1961 to expand food distribution aid in pilot programs across the country. It was made permanent through the 1964 Food Stamp Act, which aimed to strengthen the nation’s agriculture economy and increase nutrition for low-income families. Since then, the program has gone through many evolutions, and the name was changed to SNAP in 2008.
SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the federal level, while states operate their SNAP programs at the local level. The USDA regulates the retail grocers and farmers markets that accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, which recipients use just like debit cards to redeem their benefits. Those benefit dollars are 100 percent federally funded through FNS. States split administrative costs with the federal government; in FY 2020, $28.7 million of state funding went to SNAP administration in Kansas. SNAP is an entitlement program, which means it is available to all eligible individuals and is not capped by a specific budget that wouldn’t adequately fund the program.
Who Is Eligible for SNAP?
Generally, citizens and qualified non-citizens (those with certain immigration statuses determined by the federal government) with a household income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for SNAP. Each state and U.S. territory that operates the program can put into place further eligibility requirements.
The Nation's First Line of Defense against Hunger
SNAP is an effective and crucial anti-hunger, anti-poverty program for millions of Americans. Each year from 2013 to 2017, the program lifted more than 3.6 million U.S. children above the poverty line, 33,000 of whom lived in Kansas. The program’s effectiveness can be credited to its particular design.
- SNAP targets families who need it most. The maximum gross monthly income for a family of three to be eligible for SNAP is just $2,379. The program provides critical nutritional support for these low-wage families, older adults with low incomes, and people with disabilities. Around two-thirds of SNAP participants nationally are members of families with children, and more than one-third live in households with older adults or people with disabilities.
- SNAP improves participants’ health and well-being. Studies show that SNAP households, when compared to eligible households that do not participate, experience greater food security, higher nutritional quality due to larger food budgets, improved health and educational attainment outcomes for children, and a 25 percent decrease in health care costs for low-income adult recipients.
SNAP is a proven work incentive program. The benefit formula is crafted intentionally to reward work. When household income increases slightly, benefits don’t drop too quickly. This allows families to continue receiving nutritional support while also encouraging them to work toward self-sufficiency. This helps people leave the program more quickly, only using it as needed. Additionally, federal rules favor earned income (like wages from a job) over unearned income when determining food assistance benefit amounts. Earned income results in more food assistance dollars than the same amount of unearned income would. This incentive for work is clear in Kansas, where more than 46 percent of food assistance recipients are members of working families.
SNAP responds to economic changes. The program shrinks during prosperous economic times and expands to meet increased need during an economic downturn, such as a recession or, most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the benefit to households receiving assistance, SNAP is an economic driver locally and nationally. Each benefit dollar spent generates up to $1.80 in economic activity, and the program leads directly to spending in the more than 2,000 retailers accepting EBT in Kansas. In fact, Feeding America estimates that SNAP benefit spending generated about $451 million in economic activity in Kansas in 2019 alone.
SNAP program integrity is an FNS priority. Its eligibility determination system is one of the most rigorous of all federal benefit programs. Most eligibility requirements must be verified by case workers, and states have a sample of SNAP cases independently reviewed monthly to check for accuracy. Program violations by benefit recipients is unlikely because SNAP benefits can only be exchanged for food items, not used at an ATM or to purchase any other goods or services. EBT cards are as secure as debit cards, requiring PINs to make purchases.
SNAP in Kansas: The Food Assistance Program
The Kansas SNAP program is operated and administered by the Department for Children and Families (DCF), and the benefit program is called food assistance. In Kansas, one in eight people and one in six children experience hunger and food insecurity.
Hungry Kansans reported needing a combined total of $137.7 million more than they had to meet their food needs in 2020. Because it puts funds directly into household food budgets, food assistance is an important tool needed to address the hunger so many Kansans are facing.
In 2021, an average of 93,083 Kansas children per month lived in households that received food assistance. Although families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty line qualify, most Kansas households accessing food assistance have even lower incomes, below 100 percent of the poverty line. This demonstrates how critical food assistance is to combat not only hunger, but also poverty. Each year from 2013 to 2017, the food assistance program lifted 65,000 Kansans out of poverty, improving outcomes for children, their families, and their communities across the state.
Food Assistance Helps Thousands, but Could Do More for Kansas Families
Kansas eligibility requirements follow all federal rules at a minimum. Unfortunately, the state has adopted additional restrictions for the food assistance program that are allowable but not required by the USDA. State legislation passed in 2015 and 2016 codified a number of barriers for Kansans applying for and receiving food assistance, including:
- A permanent ban on Kansans with more than one drug-related felony conviction from receiving food assistance.
- A requirement that custodial parents applying for food assistance cooperate with child support, which can be burdensome and especially harmful for single-parent families with an abusive non-custodial parent.
- Eligible non-citizens who are unable to provide documentation of their qualifying status cannot be included in determining household size, but their income and resources are factored in, lowering total household benefit amounts.
- A ban on DCF requesting waivers to the three-month time limit for childless adults not working more than 20 hours per week, even in times of very high unemployment.
These and other state options prevent hungry, otherwise-eligible Kansans from accessing food assistance. In households where just one person is ineligible, the entire family’s benefit amount can decrease and the whole household can even become ineligible because of how eligibility and benefits are calculated.
This is backed up by hard data. Food assistance participation has been on a downward trend since 2015, when an average of 132,666 Kansas children lived in households that received the benefit each month versus the 93,083 per month enrolled in 2021. The participation rate among eligible Kansans has also been trending down, decreasing from 71 percent to 68 percent from 2016 to 2018 — the first three years after restrictions were implemented.
The average monthly benefit per participating Kansan, excluding pandemic relief measures, is just $153, or $5.02 per day. Kansans receiving food assistance are just able to get by during times of hardship.
SNAP is an effectively designed program, but eligibility restrictions imposed in Kansas have lessened the program’s positive impacts and have even had negative ripple effects on child well-being. For example, researchers have found a strong correlation with more children entering the foster care system when fewer Kansans have access to food assistance and other benefit programs.
The restrictions and barriers Kansas has put in place are not only unnecessary, but they are actively harmful to those SNAP is designed to assist. The program is structured to target the households who need it most. The lowest income families receive the highest level of benefit, which is still only meant to supplement their grocery budgets. And we know the program is actively supporting the state’s children and the working poor.
Because SNAP is designed intentionally to promote work, lift people out of poverty, and improve outcomes, restrictions that make it harder to apply for and receive help is counterproductive. The overly strict requirements the Kansas Legislature has implemented decrease the likelihood that Kansans can find living wage jobs and better provide for their families’ needs in the long term. We can build more thriving families and communities if we allow the program to work as it is designed to, rather than unnecessarily adding difficulty to the lives of those already doing all they can to put food on their tables for every meal.