TOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Administration throws support to welfare bill assailed by critics

By Jonathan Shorman
February 1, 2016

Republicans and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration pushed ahead Monday on their sequel to last year’s welfare changes, making the case for a new proposal that cross-checks lottery winners and assistance recipients, monitors benefit card replacements and enhances identity verification.

Lawmakers and the administration seek to present the bill, Senate Bill 372, as the successor to the Hope Act, which codified a host of welfare eligibility restrictions and adjustments in 2015. The Hope Act proved controversial, with supporters saying the law has been successful but critics contending there is little evidence of progress.

Hoping to build upon that claimed success, a number of conservative Republicans are pushing Senate Bill 372. The legislation doesn’t propose the kind of wholesale changes found in the Hope Act, but rather tweaks the current law and makes changes along the edges.

Still, opponents say those changes will delay benefits for eligible individuals and penalize households with multiple adults. The Department for Children and Families, which endorsed the proposal at a hearing in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, portrayed the legislation as a continuation of the 2015 law.

“It codified DCF reforms and established some additional measures to strengthen welfare to work policies,” said Sandra Kimmons, the agency’s director of economic and employment services. “The goal is to support work, which provides dignity and purpose to our recipients. Senate Bill 372 continues with the goals for work.”

The legislation requires DCF to cross-check lottery contestants who win $10,000 or more against a list of lottery recipients. Winners would be required to verify their income and resources.

The state also would be required to verify the identity of all adults receiving cash, food and child care assistance in a household receiving assistance. Currently, the adult applying for assistance for the household is verified.

And DCF would monitor all recipient requests for benefit card replacements. After the fourth request from a recipient in 12 months, a notice would be sent to the recipient warning them their account is being monitored for potential suspicious activity. An additional replacement request would result in a referral to DCF’s fraud investigation unit.

Additionally, the bill would require recipients to cooperate with fraud investigations and directs DCF to maintain a sufficient level of staffing to conduct investigations. The agency said its total fraud judgments have risen from $1.7 million in fiscal year 2014 to $3.2 million in fiscal year 2015.

Many of the arguments during the hearing on Senate Bill 372 centered on the success or failure of last year’s legislation and the overall legacy of welfare changes made during Brownback’s time in office.

DCF said in its testimony that after work requirements for able-bodied adults without children were implemented in 2013, the rate of employment among those adults on food assistance tripled from July to September 2013, compared to February to April 2014. DCF also said average incomes of recipients had more than doubled within a year of the implementation of a time limit on benefits.

Lawmakers also heard from DCF contractor Jennie Tesch and Lucy Ross, a former homeless woman who received cash assistance and is now employed. Neither woman spoke explicitly about the proposed legislation.

Tesch, who works with those on cash assistance to help them find jobs, pointed to Ross as an example of how well the program can work when someone takes advantage of all that is offered, “does it with a positive and humble attitude, and puts 150 percent into trying to better their lives.”

Ross was part of Tesch’s work program. She got a job this past September and said her caseworker had helped her get a car before the job started. Ross works at a call center that takes child support calls for the state of Kansas.

But welfare eligibility restrictions on adults have hampered children’s access to assistance, Kansas Action for Children argued in opposing the bill. Amanda Gress, a lobbyist for the organization and its director of government relations, said safety net programs are serving fewer people despite high levels of need.

The Kansas child poverty rate has risen 20 percent since 2007. At the same time, the number of children receiving cash assistance has dropped by more than half to about 11,000, down from more than 26,600 in 2007, Gress said.

“We would encourage lawmakers reconsider Senate Bill 372, as it creates additional barriers to accessing the state safety net,” Gress said.

“SB 372 will make it more difficult for children and families to participate in the safety net. Verifying the identity of all adults in households penalizes multiple-adult families and creates additional administrative costs and delays assistance to children and families who cannot meet their basic needs.”

The Kansas Lottery offered neutral testimony on the legislation. But it urged lawmakers to not require cross-checks on lottery winners with prizes lower than $5,000. The lottery said amounts lower than that would require significant additional manpower and expenses.

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal.

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