By John Hanna
January 6, 2016

Kansas launched a new program Wednesday to provide interested welfare recipients with volunteer mentors who can teach them life skills, with plans to expand it this summer to foster children nearing adulthood.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who faced heavy criticism last year for championing new restrictions on welfare recipients, said the mentoring program is part of Kansas’ ongoing effort to move people from social services into meaningful employment. First lady Mary Brownback was the first person to sign up to serve as a mentor.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families plans to pay for the new program through June 2017 by using $527,000 in federal funds that states can use to reduce dependency on government assistance. Department officials said they hope to match 1,100 welfare recipients with mentors in the program’s first year and to find mentors after July for 90 foster children, who generally must leave state custody at 18.

“It’s a little bit like parenting or, honestly, being a friend,” Mary Brownback said after signing a commitment to meet with a yet-to-be chosen welfare recipient at least once a month for a year. “I think we’re all perfectly capable of doing that.”

The new program is modeled on an existing one in the state’s corrections system that since 2011 has helped hundreds of prison inmates and juvenile offenders as they prepare to leave state custody.

But Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said private organizations already provide mentoring and that the new program comes with the state restricting access to welfare.

“It feels a bit like smoke and mirrors,” Cotsoradis said.

DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said while private charities provide mentoring for the poor, the state can focus specifically on welfare recipients and foster children.

The department plans to train its own staff first and to start providing one-day, six-hour training sessions for mentors in February. Jim Echols, the program’s director, said the state will do criminal background checks on prospective mentors and work first with religious congregations to find them, expanding recruiting to community groups, chambers of commerce and social welfare schools. People also can sign up online.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said, “They’re going to be cheerleaders for the person that is being mentored, and it will just reap fantastic benefits.”

Echols said the mentoring will be designed to help poor residents develop life skills that will help them find and keep jobs, so that they can be self-sufficient.

Brownback’s administration requires able-bodied adults receiving cash assistance to work, be looking for a job, or to enroll in job training.

The GOP-dominated Legislature last year codified that administrative policy into state law and added a list of items on which benefits couldn’t be spent, including tattoos, body piercings, cruise vacations and consultations with psychics. Advocates for the poor saw the changes as not only overly restrictive, but demeaning and even mean-spirited.

From July 2011 to July 2015, the number of poor Kansans receiving cash assistance dropped nearly 62 percent, to 15,000 from nearly 39,000. Cotsoradis said mentoring can be helpful, but it won’t help struggling families if they don’t have access to benefits that allow them to buy food or pay their rent.

“We’re focused on connecting these families with mentors at the same time we’re focused on cutting these families off,” she said.

But Brownback said his administration’s policies — particularly the work requirement for able-bodied welfare recipients are helping families “leave the poverty trap.”

“This is our job — everybody, as a state — to help people and to help each other,” Brownback said. “We need to puts hearts into it.”

Read more from the Associated Press.