Kentucky House votes to change child labor laws, food stamp recipient requirements

Republican-backed measures to relax child labor rules and tighten food stamp eligibility standards won passage Thursday in the Kentucky House over impassioned objections from Democrats.

In back-to-back votes, both bills advanced to the GOP-dominated Senate after long debates in the House, where Republicans also have a supermajority. Democratic lawmakers branded the proposals as harsh for low-income and young Kentuckians, while Republicans said the measures reflect policies that value work.

One bill would insert income and asset tests for Kentuckians applying for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and would impose work requirements for able-bodied adults with no dependents. SNAP helps low-income families supplement their budgets so they can buy groceries.

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Republican Rep. Wade Williams said his bill would close loopholes that he portrayed as deterrents to getting more people into jobs, contributing to the state’s stubbornly low workforce participation rate. It’s a constant complaint he hears from employers struggling to find enough workers, he said.

“The pandemic is behind us, and it’s time for a thoughtful solution on how we get more workers back in the workforce,” he said. “It’s not compassionate to simply keep somebody as a servant to the government.”

Opponents warned that tens of thousands of low-income Kentuckians would lose food assistance under the stricter standards, putting them at greater risk of struggling to get enough to eat. The impact would go beyond able-bodied adults to affect young and elderly people as well, they said.

The Kentucky State Capitol is seen in Frankfort, Ky., on April 7, 2021. The Kentucky House passed Republican-backed measures to roll back child labor rules and raise food stamp eligibility standards on Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Democratic Rep. Sarah Stalker read out the number of people estimated under the bill to lose SNAP benefits in a number of Kentucky counties, including those in Republican strongholds.

“How poor do you have to be in Kentucky to be worthy of food?” she said. “That is the question of the day. We’re talking about a basic need and a right.”

Other opponents of House Bill 367 noted that the tougher eligibility standards would put even more strain on food pantries and would come at a time when Kentucky is sitting on massive budget reserves.

“We’re supposed to love the least among us,” said Democratic Rep. Chad Aull. “This is picking on them.”

The bill would close a loophole allowing people to qualify for food stamps despite having significant available assets or an income well above the poverty level, Williams said. It also would reduce the gross income threshold for SNAP eligibility. It plugs another loophole, he said, with the goal of getting able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 52 with no dependents into the workforce.

Williams said his constituents “do not think it’s too much to ask a person to work, train, go to school or volunteer to receive a government benefit.”

The other bill that cleared the House after a prolonged debate would relax state restrictions on child labor. It would remove the cap on the number of hours older teens can work on school nights. The bill also would bar Kentucky’s top labor officials from setting child labor standards that exceed minimum federal protections.

Republican Rep. Phillip Pratt, the bill’s lead sponsor, touted the life lessons teens can learn from holding down a job — from learning the value of money to the importance of taking personal responsibility.

“For everyone on the other side of this bill, you’re standing in the way of these lessons,” he said.

Opponents of HB255 warned that school work would suffer if teens take on longer work weeks. Employers will take advantage of the relaxed restrictions to pile more hours onto young workers, especially teens who help their families cover living expenses, said Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond.

“There are no teenagers who are saying, ‘Ah, man I can only work 40 hours a week right now. But if the legislature would just make it unlimited, then I’ll go to work 50 hours right away,’” she said.

As lawmakers wrapped up debating the food stamp bill, Republican Rep. Samara Heavrin said the measure offered an answer to a question she frequently hears from constituents back home.

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“I have people stop me if I’m at Wal-Mart or the Dollar General or anywhere, to be honest, saying: ‘What are you doing in Frankfort to get people back to work?’” she said.

Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts had a starkly different assessment, saying the House had just layered “cruel bills on top of one another.” She noted the irony that the vote on the food stamp bill followed the debate over relaxing labor rules for teen workers.

“I suppose the timing of these two bills — back to back — is that the solution for how we’re going to feed these hungry families is more kids are going to work to earn for their families?” she said.

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