By Jonathan Shorman
January 4, 2017
Gov. Sam Brownback predicts Kansas welfare policy — marked by tighter eligibility restrictions on aid — will spread nationally, fueled by a new Republican-controlled Congress and states seeking to imitate the Kansas way.
The laws garnered GOP support in the Statehouse, and they offer the second-term governor a chance to export a policy legacy to the rest of the country. Although the policies, aimed at limiting assistance and spurring people into jobs, are divisive, they have often been warmly received by conservatives.
At the national level, the battle over whether Kansas represents a welfare success story or failure remains pitched. Critics say the policies boot people off assistance and restrict aid in ways that make climbing out of poverty more difficult.
But proponents of altering welfare now hold the upper-hand in Congress, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, an ardent supporter of change, helped by a Senate under fresh GOP control.
“I think you’re going to see a number of the things we’ve done expand across the country,” Brownback said. “We’re already seeing a series of states enact work requirements modeled after what Kansas has done and I think you’ll see it go into federal legislation — a decent chance of seeing a major expansion.”
In Kansas, enthusiasm for reopening the welfare debate appears small among lawmakers. The session begins next week with more Democratic and moderate GOP lawmakers, but support for change is difficult to gauge. In a session likely to be dominated by the budget and education, other topics may fall down the priority list.
Legislative inaction in Kansas would mark a break from the past two years. Last May, Brownback signed a law reducing the benefit limit for temporary assistance for needy families from 36 calendar months to 24 months. The lifetime benefit limit was also lowered to 36 months from 48 months.
The reduction was expected to take about 424 households off assistance in the next year, according to the administration. About 4,400 households received assistance at the time.
The bill was a follow-up to 2015 legislation that limited ATM cash withdrawals for recipients to $25 a day, a move later halted. It also barred recipients from spending assistance on out-of-state purchases.
The 2015 legislation prohibited use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families aid for purchase of alcohol and tobacco or at swimming pools, theme parks, tattoo parlors, a lottery, fortune tellers, spas, a jewelry store, casinos, cruises, video arcades, nail salons, massage parlors, concerts or for college or professional sports tickets. And it established a lifetime limit on assistance of 36 months (lowered to 24 months in 2016).
The policy changes in Kansas drew national attention, and Brownback has taken his vision to Capitol Hill. The governor said he spoke in 2015 with the so-called House Freedom Caucus, a group of representatives with Tea Party-leanings.
National proponents of welfare change believe the time is ripe for action at the federal level. Although President-elect Donald Trump has sent conflicting signals about social welfare programs, GOP Congressional leaders are eager to explore legislation.
Josh Archambault, a senior fellow with the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability, said he expects states to make a flurry of waiver requests for welfare programs, including food stamps in particular. He also called the 2018 reauthorization of the Farm Bill, with its role in regulating food assistance, a natural vehicle for a conversation for reform.
“We are hearing strong pent up demand for more state flexibility from the federal government,” Archambault said.
A November report from the Kansas Department for Children and Families shows a monthly average of 12,049 people receiving TANF benefits during the current fiscal year, which began in July. That’s down 10 percent from comparable months during the previous fiscal year.
The monthly average of recipients sits at its lowest level in years. In 2011, 38,963 people were on TANF on average each month. The average has fallen every year since.
The number of children, specifically, has also dropped sharply. The average number of children receiving TANF monthly has fallen from 25,981 in 2011 to 9,018 so far in fiscal year 2017.
The Brownback administration claims the average income of those working now rests above the poverty line and that the higher incomes of those coming off welfare more than offset benefit reductions. According to DCF, on average those leaving the program lost about $2,000 in benefits but gained $3,000 in additional income.
In late December, the agency announced the state had reached 40,000 new employments among cash assistance clients since Brownback took office. DCF said the average hourly wage exceeded $10.
“We know that these jobs won’t necessarily remove all dependency on benefits, but employment is the most effective way to achieve self-reliance. With the help of our employment services, they are identifying their skills and paving a path to success,” DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said.
Annie McKay, director of Kansas Action for Children, a group that opposes the welfare policy changes in Kansas, said 22,000 more children in the state live in poverty than prior to the Great Recession. But the number of children receiving assistance has dropped. She argues Kansas law doesn’t create jobs or boost wages, but rather makes obtaining assistance more difficult.
McKay warned other states and federal policymakers not to follow Kansas on welfare, calling such a move a mistake.
“Not unlike other disastrous, damaging policy proposals and changes Kansas has seen, when it comes to safety net policy, Kansas is a model for what not to do,” McKay said. “Policymakers should focus on creating good jobs and growing a state’s economy — and when families struggle to make ends meet, policymakers should build a strong safety net that can help make sure that every child, no matter their zip code or their family’s income, gets a chance to succeed.”
McKay said KAC will work with policymakers and others to advance legislation to boost safety net access for children. The organization was heartened last year, she said, that lawmakers rejected a policy that would have eliminated maternity leave for some new mothers on cash assistance. She called the proposal “especially harsh.”
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said attempts to change the law would prove tough. Lawmakers face other large issues, he indicated, that will suck up oxygen.
He said he’s heard little discussion among lawmakers of any potential changes.
“I haven’t heard anything at all of anything they would want to tweak or change on that. I just don’t know what it would be,” Hawkins said.
Lawmakers will be pulled in several directions, incoming-House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said.
“There’s only so much oxygen in the room and when you get budget, revenue, schools, Medicaid expansion, health care compact repeal — is there wiggle room to talk about some improvements in the welfare reform issues?” Ward said.
At the same time, Brownback continues to push a mentoring program launched a year ago for welfare recipients. On Wednesday, Jim Echols, the program manager, told the Governor’s Social Services Policy Council that at the end of the year 288 mentor-mentee matches had been made after setting a goal of 300.
The $350,000 a year program, funded by federal grants, now has traction going forward, Echols said. Six months ago, the program had attracted just 13 welfare recipients.
Brownback said he has begun mentoring a man along with Dave DePue, a pastor and spiritual adviser to the governor. He said the 27-year-old man has been in prison “a time or two” but is working to turn his life around.
“It’s just a really encouraging activity for me to be a part of,” Brownback said. “So I’ve been deeply appreciative of that, for my selfish purposes, and I hope we’re doing him some good as well.”