Testimony on House Bill 1, Committee Substitute

By Dustin Pugel
February 24, 2020

Testimony given in the House Health and Family Services Committee on February 20, 2020.

Chairwoman Moser, members of the committee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on the importance of our safety net and on the troubling, punitive measures found in House Bill 1. 

Many Kentuckians are simply a lost job, new baby, an accident or illness away from qualifying for Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) and Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP). These “safety net” programs were created to catch us when we fall and sustain us while we get back on our feet – and that’s exactly what they do. Kentuckians who are underpaid, working multiple part-time jobs or struggling with a disability or other barriers to economic security are able to meet basic needs with the support from these programs. And Kentucky’s children who benefit from the safety net are better off later in life because of them.

In an open letter signed by more than 60 organizations last December, many of us laid out our shared principles for what a strong and effective safety net should look like, calling on you, our public leaders to ensure access to vital assistance programs without barriers, honor the inherent dignity of people who participate, and prioritize equitable outcomes for Kentuckians of color, women and those living in distressed local economies.

The committee substitute to House Bill 1, which makes sweeping changes to our public assistance programs, would take away that support from Kentuckians who we need it the most. It does this by instituting three new lifetime bans, including: 

  • A modified ban from Medicaid benefits for those with a drug felony conviction which closely mirrors the ban on SNAP benefits, which has led to tens of thousands of Kentuckians losing help buying groceries.
  • Another “two strike” ban would keep Kentuckians from ever receiving any kind of assistance administered by the cabinet if they make a mistake and traffic their EBT card. That includes child care, Medicaid, TANF, kinship care, and all other assistance programs. 
  • Yet another measure would create a “three strikes” rule for those who use their cash KTAP benefits in ways the cabinet deems unnecessary for the welfare of the family. 

It would also reduce the food budget for homes with children in them by taking away food assistance from non-parental adults who cannot prove they completed enough work hours. 

And finally this bill returns to an illegal and expensive plan to take coverage from those who don’t meet a Medicaid work requirement that has been struck down in federal court multiple times and would cost the state hundreds of millions only to cover fewer people. 

One curious component is including a $2,500 asset limit for Kentuckians hoping to participate in the foster care, adoption assistance, child support and other child welfare programs listed under Title IV of the SSA.

The theory that punitive measures are needed to get people off public assistance and into work is not backed by data. Federal and state experiments with erecting barriers to participation haven’t improved already high rates of employment or reduced already low rates of fraud, which hover below 2% based on both federal and state data. Such measures reinforce stigmatizing stereotypes and fail to reflect reality for Kentuckians who are doing their best to make ends meet. The fact of the matter is that most people who participate in food and medical assistance also participate in the labor force. Decades of data show that by creating numerous barriers to health, food, and other forms of assistance, HB 1 will leave people worse off and make keeping their jobs more difficult. For some Kentuckians, it would create an absolute lifetime ban on all forms of support.

There are effective, evidence-based ways to assist people who are working to improve their lives – measures that aren’t punitive but empowering. These reforms invest in Kentuckians, rather than making it harder for people to be healthy and productive. A few of those are in this bill, including proposals that raise the asset cap for KTAP, make it easier for older Kentuckians to get food assistance, a possible expansion of temporary health coverage that needs further exploration, and allowing former KTAP participants to use food assistance.

And there are other evidence-based policies that could help which are not provided for in this bill that we should pursue –  policies like voluntary SNAP Employment & Training, where people can get education and job training that is paid for 50% by the federal government. Increasing access to child care by raising the child care assistance eligibility limit could be very helpful as many Kentucky families find that not having enough child care has gotten in the way of their work. This bill does explore that option, but without any funding. We’ve got a budget bill now, and we could pursue that if we wanted to. And I would be remiss if I didn’t add that we have gone longer than ever in our state and nation’s history without raising the minimum wage, which has lost much of its purchasing power over the last decade. Raising it would improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians. I hope this committee considers the unequivocal evidence backing a supportive rather than punitive approach to our safety net, and works to design a bill that improves Kentuckians’ well-being – the foundation of our state’s shared prosperity.

Note: The $2,500 asset limit was clarified to only pertain to the Kentucky Transition Assistance Program through House Floor Amendment 3, approved on Feb. 21. And House Floor Amendment 14, also approved on Feb. 21, would remove the Medicaid drug felony ban as well as the TANF and SNAP drug felony bans – all steps in the right direction.