As Washington debates, some U.S. states proceed with food stamps cuts

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By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - As Congress and the White House debate proposed cuts in the federal food stamps program, Kansas and Oklahoma are going ahead with reductions that could leave thousands of people without subsidies for food if they do not find work, or sign up for job training.

The two states will require healthy adults through the age of 49 with no dependents to work at least 20 hours per week, or be in job training, in order to be eligible for food stamps.

The change takes effect on Tuesday, when those states allow a federal waiver of the work requirement to expire. Wisconsin will take a similar step next July, bringing to eight the number of states requiring work to get the assistance.

"These are people who should be working," said Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families. "There are plenty of jobs available."

A near-record 48 million Americans - or about one in seven - receive food stamps, government data shows.

The Food Stamp Program administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department provides paper coupons or debit cards for low-income people to buy food. But states can ask for the work requirement to be added, which Oklahoma and Kansas have done.

Phyllis Gilmore, Secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, announced the work requirement in early September. In Oklahoma, a bill approved by state lawmakers earlier this year made the change. Both of those two states, as well as Wisconsin, have a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature.

Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon said the work requirement would help food stamp recipients to "break their addiction to government subsidies."

The change will affect about 20,000 Kansas residents, state officials said. Oklahoma Department of Human Services spokesman Mark Beutler said he was not sure how many people would be affected there.

The changes have drawn criticism from some advocates for the poor and unemployed.

"It's the wrong thing to do," said Louis Goseland, campaign director for Sunflower Community Action, based in Wichita, Kansas. "It's not as though starving 20,000 people will do anything to change unemployment. It is punitive to the most vulnerable people in the state."

President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package in 2009 suspended the work requirement nationwide to help the growing number of unemployed during the recession. Even as the economy and job picture have improved, the waiver has remained in most states.

Five states - Delaware, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming - have not used the waiver in recent years for a variety of reasons, according to a recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent public policy research group.

The waiver still allows unemployed people to get food stamps, but only for three months within a 36-month period. That means in Kansas and Oklahoma some people will have three months from October 1 either to find a job or enroll in a federal job-training program.

The tighter restrictions follow a vote by the Republican-majority U.S. House of Representatives on September 24 to cut food stamp spending by $40 billion.

Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it passes the Senate. The White House said foods stamps help stave off poverty and hunger.

One provision of the House bill would limit healthy adults with no dependents to three months of food stamps over a three-year period unless they were working or in a job training program, similar to what will soon be required in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

(Reporting By Kevin Murphy; Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)