TOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Annie McKay: Welfare Reform vs. Reality

By Annie McKay
July 27, 2016

Kansans are folks who respect hard work. Our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality grew from our deep pioneer roots. It is both a quintessentially Kansan value and the crux of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the notion that Kansans receiving welfare do not work hard has become a common but untrue stereotype. This stigma has grown dangerously toxic.

In recent years, state policymakers have championed some of the most problematic welfare policies in the country. Their most alarming reforms hurt a critical program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF is for children living in dire circumstances. It provides a small amount of cash to Kansas’ most desperately impoverished moms and dads so they can put dinner on the table, pay an overdue water bill so their kids can bathe or buy diapers for their baby. TANF is not a frivolous, long-term income source or an excuse for able-bodied adults to avoid work. It is a temporary lifeboat — for families with children — to keep them afloat in their darkest hours of need.

Data shows a little extra cash can make a long-term difference for Kansans in deep poverty. In an economically fragile family, it only takes one small misfortune — something as trivial as a flat tire or a flu bug — for their entire world to unravel. TANF can mean the difference between making rent and being evicted, keeping a job and getting fired, or feeding their children and sending them to bed hungry.

Everyone agrees that self-reliance is the best-case scenario for all Kansans. But self-reliance requires economic opportunity. Kansas not only ranked 7th worst in job growth in 2015, but the fastest-growing jobs did not pay enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. Gov. Brownback’s TANF restrictions don’t create a single new job, or raise a single Kansan’s salary. They merely limit families’ ability to keep their heads above water as they’re drowning under bills.

The success of welfare reforms should be measured by the number of families who leave the program because they found work that allows them to make ends meet. Federal data shows less than 10 percent of Kansas families receiving TANF leave the program for this reason. Rather, most people leave because new restrictions forced them off. The state makes no data available to monitor how children losing those services fare afterwards. This is where the disconnect between welfare restrictions and reality lies. What hope do we offer Kansas children by letting them go hungry because their parents can’t find good-paying jobs?

Kansans value hard work and self-reliance, but they also value their neighbors, and caring for those less fortunate, especially children. Ensuring kids have basic necessities during their most critical years of development through TANF gives them a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty that makes welfare necessary in the first place.

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