By SHERMAN SMITH
TOPEKA — Wichita Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau said enactment of a Kansas Senate bill written to deny federal food stamp benefits to noncustodial parents not making child support payments would lead to an increase in the number of children going hungry.
Faust-Goudeau, a Democrat, delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor during debate on House Bill 2141, which would make Kansas the fourth state in the country to withhold Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits from a parent who owed child support.
She expressed outrage the Legislature would contemplate withholding food as a tactic to extract cash from poor parents.
“The bill would sock it to them. We’re going to deny them some measly food stamps. Find another way. Don’t starve them to death,” Faust-Goudeau said. “This bill would make it less likely that parents can support their children and more likely that children and their parents will go hungry. Reducing access to food for Kansans who are already struggling financially is unnecessarily harsh and ineffective.”
The Senate by the most narrow margin voted Wednesday to defeat the bill disqualifying noncustodial parents from food stamps if delinquent on child support payments or found uncooperative with state enforcement of child support orders. Existing law applied this standard to the parent with custody of children, but Kansas hadn’t extended that to noncustodial parents.
The vote was 20-20 after Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, and Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Berryton, changed their votes to “no.”
“I’d like to change my vote,” Kloos said. “This is a difficult decision, but I do think there’s a lot of kids we do need to keep in mind.”
In Kansas, 280,000 people and 100,000 children endure hunger, meaning one in seven kids were subject to food insecurity. The challenge for low-income adults responsible for feeding a family deepened as inflation pushed grocery costs higher in Kansas, despite a cut in the state’s sales tax on food. Congress ordered emergency SNAP assistance extended to the states during the COVID-19 pandemic to expire April 1.
The Senate bill generated fierce opposition from organizations and individuals testifying before House and Senate committees.
Support in both the House and Senate came only from the Florida think tank Opportunity Solutions Project, which argued Kansas ought to strengthen limitations on welfare assistance in a manner reminiscent of action taken by the 2015 Kansas Legislature and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The food stamp and child support bill was passed by the Kansas House in February with a 76-46 majority. Three states have adopted laws comparable to the Kansas measure praised by Sen. Beverly Gossage, the Eudora Republican and chair of the Senate health committee.
She said Kansas parents with custody of children had been subject since 2017 to this food stamp compliance mandate enforced by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. The reform bill was designed to compel “supposedly deadbeat” parents to reconnect with their children and provide financial support to the family or lose access to food assistance, Gossage said.
“We believe that the children and their families should be due their rightfully owed … money from a noncustodial parent before the state pays for welfare,” Gossage said. “This is pro-family, pro-children and pro-personal responsibility.”
Opponents of the bill included Kansas Action for Children, Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Harvesters — The Community Food Network, Kansas Food Bank, Second Harvest Community Food Bank, Kansas National Education Association, Kansas Public Health Association, United Community Services of Johnson County and DCF.
“This is not a program that has been adopted by other states because, one, it doesn’t achieve its goal, two, it’s very insensitive to our poorest families,” said Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City.
A concern expressed about the legislation was suspension of food benefits could undermine a parent’s ability to maintain employment, earn a sustainable income and result in unintended consequences for other family members.
“This bill is cruel and punitive, and negatively impacts hungry children living in poverty,” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park. “We should be creative enough to find other ways to get individuals to make child support payments.”
Another issue was a custodial parent could be found noncompliant with DCF if not participating in the effort to secure child support even if that collaboration might place the custodial parent at personal risk. The DCF secretary would have leeway to exempt a parent if that individual had “good cause” to avoid compliance with child support enforcement.
Faust-Goudeau, whose mother lobbied at the Capitol decades ago on behalf of impoverished single parents, said she couldn’t believe the Legislature would contemplate a bill exacerbating food deficit problems of her Wichita constituents.
“Thank God for the safety net clinics,” she said. “Thank God for the Red Cross. Thank God for the food bank. Thank God for the churches that fill in the gaps.”