By Karen Wulfkuhle
Executive Director, United Community Services of Johnson County
Kansas, like every state, participates in the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Yet Kansas is out of step with the rest of the nation. For every 100 Kansas families with children in poverty, fewer than 17 received benefits in 2012. The national average is about 26 recipients of TANF for every 100 poor families.
My organization, United Community Services of Johnson County, recently completed months-long research to understand why TANF participation rates in Kansas are going down. First we looked at child poverty rates. Poverty rates for 0- to 18-year-olds went from 17 percent to 22.8 percent between 2008 and 2012. (Child poverty is measured by the U.S. Census Bureau in numerous ways. Our report used the Current Population Survey. Whatever Census Bureau measure is used, the trend is the same – child poverty is increasing.)
With more poor children, we would expect TANF participation to go up. Instead, the number of extremely poor Kansans (children and adults) receiving TANF cash assistance declined 33 percent over five years (fiscal years 2008-2013). During fiscal year 2013, the average monthly number receiving TANF was 21,887 persons; down from 32,773 in fiscal year 2008. And the number continues to decline – for January 2014, 17,880 received TANF.
The Kansas Department of Children and Families administers TANF and has the responsibility to help poor families succeed. But tougher eligibility rules, increased sanctions and shorter time limits keep people from qualifying for help and force others off the program before they have achieved self-sufficiency.
Right now, our state falls short of helping poor children. Improving life for poor children means connecting their parents to work by providing education and job skills; child care while they work or go to school; financial support that is adequate to meet basic needs; specialized support when they face unusual challenges; and easy access to a case worker when difficulties arise.
The good news is that Kansas had more than $40 million unused in the TANF budget at the start of this fiscal year. At UCS, we believe these funds should be spent to improve the outcomes for those in poverty, by increasing basic cash assistance, improving employment services and increasing child care reimbursement rates. But it will take more than money; at the same time policies must be more attuned to the needs of families and the realities of the job market.
Note: For more information, see our TANF resource page.