As Republican legislators look for ways to tighten the state's budget belt, and score points with an increasingly conservative electorate, they are targeting federal assistance programs popular among low-income and needy Oklahomans.
Last year, the GOP-led Legislature passed a measure subjecting welfare recipients to drug tests, and so far this year close to a dozen measures have been introduced targeting assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps, and Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or unemployment benefits.
Some of the bills create new requirements for those who receive assistance, like requiring recipients to work more hours, or prohibit certain people, like those convicted of drug crimes or with $5,000 or more in assets, from receiving benefits.
“We should define compassion by the number of people we're helping get off these programs, not keep on them,” said new House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who has a bill that would require able-bodied, childless adults under age 50 who receive food stamps to spend a minimum of 35 hours per week engaged in “work activities.”
“I think we also have to recognize that oftentimes government subsidy programs often can lead to dependence, and we need to make sure we're not perpetuating dependence, that we're encouraging personal responsibility.”
A fiscal analysis of Shannon's bill suggests it would cost the Department of Human Services an estimated $18.7 million for the agency to add staff, develop work components and training, and change its system to comply with the requirements. The analysis projects nearly 5,200 recipients could be dropped from the program, for an estimated savings of $1 million.
The bill could pose additional problems, since the federal agency that administers the program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has said states cannot change or raise the work limits, according to DHS.
Statia Jackson, 38, an educator in Oklahoma City, said she received food stamps for about two years while working part time and raising two young children on her own.
Jackson, who eventually left public assistance after finding a full-time job, said she would have gone hungry without the benefits.
“Honestly, we would not have eaten,” she said. “They do have some food pantries and things of that nature, but at times they didn't have anything. I would have gone without eating if I didn't have those (benefits).”
Food stamps targeted
Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, has a pair of bills targeting those who receive food stamps, including a measure that would prohibit convicted drug offenders or those with $5,000 or more in “liquid assets” from receiving benefits.
Roberts declined to speak to The Associated Press about his bills, but his office issued a statement in which he said he introduced the measures at the request of a constituent.
“I have heard concerns from taxpaying constituents that struggle to make ends meet and often have to resort to bologna sandwiches for lunch,” Roberts said in the statement. “At the same time, there are others who made poor choices resulting in a drug conviction and are currently subsidized by others' taxpayer dollars.”
But advocates for low-income Oklahomans say beneficiaries of these types of programs are being unfairly targeted because of a misconception that the programs are broadly abused or that recipients somehow don't deserve benefits.
“I think that there is a popular myth that poor people are abusing these programs, and I think it's unfounded and unfortunate,” said Kate Richey, a policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a think-tank that advocates for programs that help poor Oklahomans. “These are real people who find themselves in a situation where the only option at the moment is to ask for help.”
Oklahoma DHS officials said in a statement that the $5,000 liquid asset requirement for recipients would affect only a sliver of those who receive benefits.
“Typically, people with $5,000 in their bank accounts are not coming into DHS offices to apply for food benefits,” DHS spokesman Mark Beutler said. “Oklahoma research indicated less than 1 percent of the total applications denied each month were denied specifically for excess resources.”
House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Inman said Roberts' bill, which initially had a $2,000 asset limit, also discourages needy families from saving money to get out of poverty.
“It discourages them from saving money in case their car breaks down to pay for repairs,” said Inman, D-Del City. “The Republican majority today wants our poorest families to spend every dollar out of their savings account before they get any help.”
Inman said he believes low-income Oklahomans are an easy target because they have no one at the Capitol advocating on their behalf.
“The only thing I can think of is that they're the folks who have the smallest voice in the state,” Inman said. “They don't have highly paid, powerful lobbyists who can come and defend them.
“To cut back their funding at this particular time is unconscionable.”