By Andy Marso
September 26, 2015

Gov. Sam Brownback sought to refocus Kansas’ anti-poverty programs this week, hosting a group of regional experts to bring in new ideas and convening a new policy council to decide what to implement in the state.

The 13 members of the Governor’s Social Services Policy Council include community leaders as well as the secretaries of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Kansas Department of Corrections.

The governor intends for the council to coordinate, analyze and review the state’s social service policies. He likened it to his Council of Economic Advisors.

“Don’t know if it’s ever been done in the state before,” Brownback said. “But we’re going to try.” The council convened for the first time Wednesday in the luxury suites area at Sporting Park, the Kansas City, Kan., home of the Sporting Kansas City soccer team.

At the end of the hourlong meeting, the council decided to focus on obtaining data about criminal recidivism and the breakdown of the family structure. Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the Topeka nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, observed the council meeting.

She said she heard some promising things about addressing the “cliff effect” that makes it difficult for families to adjust to moving off social services as they begin to earn more money.

But Cotsoradis said action must follow discussion for change to occur.

“My concern would be, will this be just be another yearlong dialogue much like the child poverty task force was, with lots of recommendations but limited implementation?” she asked. Before the council meeting, the governor hosted a two-day Midwestern Governors Association summit on “Exploring Poverty Reduction Strategies and Advancement Opportunities in the Midwest.”

The summit was closed to the media.

“We’re all kind of focused on how do you get people out of poverty and recognizing that you’ve got to get all of your services coordinated and you’ve got to serve the whole person,” Brownback said.

He said he wants to focus on removing barriers to employment, such as how a prison record can affect a Kansan’s ability to get a job. The connection between poverty and health problems is increasingly well-documented as public health advocates nationally focus more on connecting the dots between social issues and health issues.

Social determinants of health were the topic of the keynote address at the Kansas Public Health Association’s annual conference earlier this month, and this week the Washington Post reported on a new study that shows a growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor Americans.

Low-income Americans are more likely to smoke or be obese, but the researchers also said that some of the age expectancy gap may be due to the “toxic stress” that comes with being poor. After participating in the Midwestern Governors Association summit, Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, said being poor can put people at risk for mental health problems, which in turn leads to habits that harm their physical health.

“There’s a feeling of helplessness or hopelessness, which means there’s some sort of depression sitting there,” she said.

“I think when people have bad habits, they’re usually medicating themselves in some way. Cigarettes are a drug, as is alcohol. Food can be a drug.” Andrew Szalay, director of state and local relations for Habitat for Humanity, also participated in the summit.

He called the argument of whether financial security leads to good health or whether better health helps improve income “a great chicken-or-egg question.”

His response to such situations is to choose a policy strategy and “start plowing ahead.” “In my case, with Habitat, we’re going to start building houses, we’re going to start doing weatherization,” Szalay said.

“We’re going to get other people involved, we’re going to get volunteers, we’re going to show up to help someone else. Hopefully there will be a new relationship that starts up that (makes someone say) ‘I want to be healthier.’”

Andy Marso is a reporter for Heartland Health Monitor, a news collaboration focusing on health issues and their impact in Missouri and Kansas.

Read more from the Kansas Health Institute.