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GOP bills to cut SNAP benefits, loosen child labor laws advance in House

Lexington Herald-Leader - 2/23/2024

A Republican-sponsored bill that would make it harder to qualify for food stamps passed out of the House on Thursday, as opponents decried its statewide ripple effects on children and families.

House Bill 367 from Rep. Wade Williams, R-Earlington, would require households with able-bodied adults who are on or applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to prove their total assets or savings are below $2,750 in order to legally access that assistance.

For seniors and people with disabilities, they must have fewer than $4,250 in assets.

Most states, including Kentucky, do not currently require an individual or household meet an asset requirement before being deemed eligible for SNAP, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The bill passed , 61-33. A handful of Republicans from rural districts voted against the bill, including Reps. Timmy Truett of McKee, Chris Fugate of Chavies, Bobby McCool of Van Lear and Bill Wesley of Ravenna.

As was the case last week when the bill passed out of the House Families and Children Committee, Williams told House members his intention was not to take SNAP assistance from people who really needed it.

Rather, he wants to target the roughly 34,000 Kentuckians with no kids who can work to rejoin the workforce. And he’s trying to do so by eliminating the the Broad-based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE) standard — a standard Williams calls a “widely-abused loophole” and “fraud by design.”

“It’s not the bill’s intention to eliminate SNAP,” Williams said Thursday. “The goal is to make sure everyone on SNAP should be on SNAP.”

To currently qualify for SNAP benefits in Kentucky, able-bodied adults earning at or below the poverty line are required to work, volunteer or train 20 hours a week. But Williams said roughly 34,000 able-bodied individual SNAP recipients are in violation of that rule, because of categorical eligibility.

Democrats were pointed in their criticism of this bill, which they say will have widespread impact beyond just the 34,000 Williams is trying to target.

Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, said although his intention is to surgically target a particular group, that wouldn’t be the end result.

“Several of these provisions really do apply to every SNAP eligible households; 24,500 Kentucky households will lose their food assistance — 48,000 Kentuckians,” she said on the House floor before voting against the bill.

“When we hear able-bodied adults with zero dependents, we have this idea there are huge numbers of Kentuckians lying around refusing to go to work, and that simply is not the case.”

By adding an asset test and eliminating categorical eligibility, the state is exacerbating people’s reliance on these programs, Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, explained.

“Under this bill, people in poverty can’t save for a car, they can’t save for a down payment or security deposit. They can’t build up emergency funds in case somebody gets sick or loses a job,” she said. “We want our General Assembly to build up a general reserve fund, but we’re literally going to prevent families from doing the same thing.”

A handful of Democratic lawmakers read aloud the numbers of families in their districts who would lose benefits under this bill — figures in the thousands.

“How poor do we have to be in Kentucky to be worthy of food,” asked Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville.

The bill would also reduce the gross income threshold to qualify for SNAP benefits to 130% of the federal poverty level, and it would revoke the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ ability to waive those limits and loosen SNAP eligibility standards in times of “economic distress,” without permission from the General Assembly.

This change would give the Legislature greater power over SNAP work requirements.

Child labor bill

Also on Thursday, Republicans passed a bill relaxing child labor laws, removing the cap on hours 16- or 17-year-olds can work on school nights and prohibiting Kentucky’s top labor officials from setting standards on child labor that exceed minimum federal protections.

Rep. Philip Pratt, R-Georgetown, said part of his goal with House Bill 255 is to allow kids as young as 14 the “same experience to work, learn, grow, exactly like we did.”

But opponents of the bill continue to say it will increase student dropout rate and open the door for exploitation.

Democratic Rep. Raymond called the bill “discriminatory” and “exploitative.” It doesn’t “give kids more agency,” she said. “It gives adults the ability to hand them schedules.”

Rep. Chad Aull, D-Lexington, said this bill will allow kids to work what the U.S. Department of Labor considers “high-intensity hours.” Aull said it “poses a significant threat to the educational attainment of our students.”

House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade accused Democrats of “exaggerations and grasping at straws in order to create fear tactics,” adding that Pratt is not “mandating work for these children.” Parents can still choose whether or not their kids have jobs outside of school, he said.

Rep. Rachel Roberts, D-Newport, asked Pratt if he consulted the Department of Education or Department of Labor before he crafted this bill. No, Pratt said.

Before being called “out of order” by House Speaker David Osborne for “cross-examining” Pratt, Roberts said she was “tired” of lawmakers filing proposals for widespread consideration without consulting expert stakeholders beforehand.

Before it passed 60-36, Roberts said, “This is a dumb bill.”

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