A brief theological debate broke out Tuesday in the Kansas Legislature as religious leaders voiced opposition to a bill placing further restrictions on welfare recipients.
The legislation, House Bill 2600, is a sequel to last year’s Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) Act. Both bills place stricter limits on who can receive cash assistance and food stamps and for how long. They also place restrictions on things like using benefits to take cruises or continuing to receive benefits after hitting the lottery — scenarios critics say are far-fetched and intended to paint recipients in a negative light.
Moti Rieber, a rabbi who leads the group Kansas Interfaith Action, opened his testimony to the House Health and Human Services Committee with a biblical quote from the book of Deuteronomy that urged legislators to be “open-handed” to the poor.
Rieber said he and the other religious leaders in his group believe welfare legislation should not be punitive or impugn the human dignity of people in poverty.
“I would put it to you that HB 2600, and actually its predecessor legislation as well, does not comport with these principles,” he said. “It does not address the causes of poverty, it does not help people get out of poverty and it presumes the bad intentions of people in need.”
Rep. Randy Powell, a Republican from Olathe, said he’s also a “man of faith” and urged Rieber to take a broader look at the Bible as a whole.
“I know the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, which is something you might not be referring to but it’s biblical also, he talks about if a man doesn’t work, let him not eat,” Powell said. “So from what I can read, what we’re looking at doing is just ensuring that we have proper stewardship.”
Powell pointed to written testimony from Chuck McGinnis, a 52-year-old father of three who praised the Kansas Department for Children and Families for helping him find work with the Ellis County Road and Bridge Division after his oilfield job dried up.
Rieber quoted extensively from the United Methodist Church’s principles of welfare reform document and said he could provide the committee members with similar statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He said the Legislature’s anti-poverty work should focus on investing in education and job training and maintaining a minimum wage that ensures employment is more rewarding than welfare.
He argued against “arbitrary” time limits on how long Kansans can receive benefits, saying they don’t account for individual employment circumstances.
Sister Therese Bangert, a nun with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, also spoke against the new bill, saying legislators didn’t seem to understand how difficult it already is for Kansans to access benefits for which they’re eligible.
For example, she said that in 2011, 31 percent of Kansans who were eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, were not receiving them.
“What I do find troubling is what I judge as a lack of respect for the struggles of persons living in poverty,” she said.
Bangert asked the committee to amend HB 2600 to undo a provision in last year’s legislation that prohibited Kansans convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving welfare assistance in their lifetimes.
She said that prohibition was particularly unfair to people with mental illness who self-medicate with illegal drugs out of desperation — including military veterans who “come back from the wars we send them to” suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The House committee took no action on HB 2600 Tuesday. A companion bill, Senate Bill 372, has advanced out of committee and awaits Senate action.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso