Bill would put ‘giant holes’ in Kentucky’s safety net, groups say

The Capitol building in Frankfort | Photo by Olivia Krauth

More than 45 organizations have signed on to a letter opposing a bill that critics say could hurt thousands of Kentuckians by tying public assistance to a new set of rules.

The almost 20-page House Bill 3, which is sponsored by David Osborne, R-Prospect, and David Meade, R-Stanford, focuses on people who receive aid through safety net programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid.

“I almost see it as cutting giant holes in the safety net,” said Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

The bill, which was introduced Feb. 20, has been languishing so far, but it may be brought up for discussion Thursday by a legislative committee, according to the center.

Just in case, the center is collecting signatures for an opposition letter that warns legislators that HB 3 would “erect costly and complex barriers that take away vital food, health care and financial assistance from children and families in Kentucky.”

One section of the bill calls for implementing drug testing that public assistance applicants would have to pay for, although they would get reimbursed if they passed the test.

ACLU of Kentucky worries about what would happen if there were false positives and “if there is due process for people to be able to still access their benefit while something’s being contested and just sort of how the system would address those cases without punishing individuals,” said Amber Duke, communications director.

And, in general, the ACLU is concerned about the level of surveillance the bill calls for. “Anytime there’s legislation or policy that’s targeting poor people we’re concerned because very often folks that are in poverty are denied due process and the right to privacy and equal protections of the law and other constitutional guarantees that middle class and wealthy people don’t face,” she said.

Other organizations that have signed onto the opposition letter include Bridgehaven, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Louisville Urban League, Family Health Centers, the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Louisville, the Kentucky Council of Churches, Kentucky Voices for Health and several more groups around the state.

Dustin Pugel

Pugel said the bill sets forth one of the most severe sets of “policy changes that undermine the safety net in Kentucky that the state has ever seen.”

“And it does it in cash assistance, mostly for low-income kids; it does it for food assistance for parents and anybody who has a history of substance use disorder; it also does it for Medicaid and some other ways.”

For example, it would incorporate the work and “community engagement” requirement that’s in the state’s proposed Medicaid overhaul into state statute, Pugel said.

“This bill would make this requirement not just an experiment, meant to temporarily test the idea, but a permanent fixture of Kentucky’s Medicaid program,” Pugel and a colleague, Ashley Spalding, recently noted on KCEP’s policy blog.

HB 3 also would result in restrictions on the use of TANF dollars, leading to the reduction or cutting off of “already extremely modest and temporary assistance that overwhelmingly goes to children — potentially harming 28,000 kids,” the opposition letter notes.

Source: USDA, Wikimedia Commons

Many of the people who benefit from cash assistance are “children who live with a disabled parent or they’re living with a relative instead of being placed in foster care, so we’re talking about very low-income kids who are in a very vulnerable position, and taking away $100 per month for them could be the difference between their guardians making the next rent check or having enough gas in the tank to get them around or being able to buy them clothes for school or keeping the fridge full,” Pugel said.

Another section of the bill would require some SNAP parents between the ages of 19 and 64 to participate in a workfare program, which is similar to an unpaid internship.

Duke said that’s concerning because “it’s really creating a separate and unequal workforce” in which people would not be getting properly compensated for their work.

The Kentucky Center for Economy Policy says such programs aren’t beneficial for long-term employment and economic stability and would be costly for Kentucky.

“A fiscal note for a proposed workfare program in Montana for 17,576 people estimates the program will cost the state $8.2 million, which is likely a modest estimate given it doesn’t include the cost of background checks, for instance. The number of Kentuckians participating in a workfare program through HB 3 would be much greater – as many as 95,000 people,” notes Spalding, a senior policy analyst, on the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy’s website.

HB 3 also calls for the creation of benefit cards with a photo on them that retailers in the food stamp program would have to check to verify that the name and likeness of the recipient on the photo ID matched the person who’s trying to purchase groceries.

The recipient could designate certain people, such as a few close relatives, to make purchases for them on a temporary basis, and the cabinet would keep track of that electronically, according to the bill.

However, Pugel said that retailers can’t treat SNAP recipients any different from anyone else and so the bill would likely trigger a change for shoppers in general. He predicts that “anytime anybody comes with a debit card or a credit card and they are purchasing groceries, every cashier will have to check an ID and if it doesn’t match up, they can’t complete the transaction.”

Right now, “I never show my ID when I use my debit or credit card,” he noted. “And I certainly don’t have a picture on my debit card.”

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services would be tasked with designing and implementing a substance abuse screening program for adults who have a felony or misdemeanor history of substance abuse and who receive or are trying to get SNAP or TANF benefits or Medicaid. Pugel said the language is ambiguous; for example, does “history” refer to people who’ve been arrested or actually convicted?

He also questions the legality of the measure and said having to pay for the drug testing would be a hardship on applicants at a time when they’re coming to the state for help.

People who fail drug testing would go into a probationary period and have to enter a substance abuse treatment program or risk losing their benefits, according to the bill.

The bill’s co-sponsors could not be reached for comment.