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.”