WICHITA EAGLE: Kansans leaving welfare but not poverty

By Phillip Brownlee
May 8, 2016

State lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback are patting themselves on the back for placing more restrictions on welfare and food stamp recipients, characterizing the demands as a form of “tough love.” But there is little evidence that many of these Kansans are rising out of poverty.

The latest restrictions approved last week by the Legislature reduce the lifetime limit on Temporary Aid for Needy Families benefits from 36 to 24 months. Also, if any adult in a household has met that limit (including, say, a grandparent who lives with the family), no one in the household is eligible for assistance. The state also is now required to cross-check the names of welfare recipients with people who have won $5,000 or more in the lottery.

These new restrictions follow a string of reforms the Legislature and Brownback administration have implemented over the past few years. These include reducing the lifetime benefit cap from 60 months (the federal limit) to 48 months, then to 36 (and now to 24). They also added drug testing and patronizing restrictions on how TANF benefits could be spent – no cruises, lingerie, movie theater admission, etc.

Lawmakers also placed a $25 daily cap last year on cash benefit withdrawals from ATMs – a restriction that couldn’t be enforced because it conflicted with federal law. And they increased work and job training demands, including the number of hours a mother must work in order to receive child care support.

Brownback has been bragging a lot lately about these reforms. In a recent commentary in the Hill newspaper, he and co-author Tarren Bragdon wrote that “Kansas shows what’s possible when you free people from the welfare trap.”

Brownback cites a study done by Bragdon’s conservative policy group showing that nearly three-fifths of Kansans who left welfare were employed within 12 months and that their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent during the first year. “Kansas’ simple reforms have led to more employment, higher incomes, less poverty and lower spending,” Brownback and Bragdon wrote.

But other reports aren’t so glowing.

In 2014, the most recent government data available, less than 10 percent of Kansans cited employment as their reason for leaving TANF. And most of the jobs they do find pay so little that they still live in poverty – only without a safety net.

That’s why poverty rates haven’t declined in Kansas, even though welfare rolls have plummeted. It’s also why food pantries have seen an increase in Kansans seeking help.

Of particular concern is how the welfare and food stamp restrictions affect children. The number of Kansas kids covered by TANF has dropped from about 26,000 in 2010 to fewer than 10,000 in 2016, yet the number of children in poverty has stayed about the same.

Studies show that children who are supported through TANF and other safety net programs grow up to have higher earnings and are less likely to be involved in violent crimes or become teen mothers, said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.

She argues that the TANF and food stamp restrictions “increase the likelihood that today’s poor children will become tomorrow’s poor adults.”

Brownback and many lawmakers say the reforms are lifting people out of dependency. That likely has happened for some. But for many others, the restrictions are simply making their lives – and especially the lives of their children – even more difficult.

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