By Tim Carpenter
February 25, 2016
Gov. Sam Brownback argued passionately Thursday for public acceptance of a new study purporting to demonstrate success of state laws crafted to wean Kansans off welfare programs and compel them to join the workforce.
He responded to criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of the governor’s welfare agenda and pointed to conclusions in a report by the conservative organization Foundation for Government Accountability indicating the state’s welfare-to-work path embraced by Brownback had led to positive outcomes.
The foundation’s evaluation was based on confidential state employment and welfare information regarding 41,000 able-bodied Kansans without children. The document said nearly 60 percent of people required to be employed or enroll in job training to stay on food stamps landed a job within one year.
“Their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent during the first year,” Brownback said during a news conference. “This is success. These common-sense reforms have led to more employment, higher incomes and, bigger than all of that, less poverty.”
On Wednesday, Sanders said during a campaign appearance in Kansas City, Mo., that Brownback liked to “beat up on the poor.”
Brownback’s response: “Yesterday, and this shouldn’t be surprising, a socialist from Vermont was challenging the Kansas programs of common-sense welfare. I disagree with Mr. Sanders’ ideas of having more, bigger government to help solve the poverty problem.”
The Foundation for Government Accountability in Naples, Fla., has been linked with the State Policy Network, which is a collection of lobbying groups that push a limited-government, free-enterprise viewpoint. The foundation has endorsed restrictions on social service programs and rejection of Medicaid expansion.
In response to Brownback’s statements, Kansas Action for Children and the Kansas Center for Economic Growth challenged conclusions drawn from the Foundation for Government Accountability’s analysis. Leaders of both Kansas organizations disputed the belief progress was being made to reduce the level of poverty in the state.
“Unfortunately, Kansas’ safety net is serving fewer and fewer children and families, despite persistently high levels of need,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children. “Any credible analysis of policies that further shrink the state’s safety net must include the impact that these policies have on the state’s poorest children.”
Annie McKay, executive director of the Center for Economic Growth, said a proper evaluation would delve deeper into statistics offered by the Brownback administration. It isn’t enough, she said, to declare a 127 percent increase in income among former food stamp recipients. Reality can’t be captured by relaying a report showing nearly 60 percent of those leaving food stamps were able to find a job at some point in the next 12 months, she said.
McKay said the Foundation for Government Accountability reported food stamp participants were earning $2,450 per year before being taken off the Kansas program. That group reported income of $5,562 annually after departing the program. The poverty line benchmark for an individual is $11,880 in yearly income.
“They are still below the federal poverty rate based on the data they provided today,” McKay said.
A better measure of success of this welfare-reduction policy would be to document the number of Kansas adults who lose assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because they can’t find enough work to meet the state’s mandate, Cotsoradis said.
“These policy changes do not promote self-sufficiency,” she said. “They only force some of the state’s poorest Kansans to go hungry.”
Brownback said he was confident the Foundation for Government Accountability had produced a comprehensive welfare tracking study. He said the findings should put to rest a dispute about whether the welfare-to-work portion of reforms in Kansas reduced poverty, increased incomes and prompted greater employment.
“We have enacted some simple reforms that have moved people out of poverty,” Brownback said. “We have tried the war on poverty, with big government programs for 50 years and trillions of dollars. It has failed. In Kansas, we believe creating a path out of poverty is a very good thing.”
Brownback endorsed a Senate-passed bill that would add a new layer of welfare reform by reducing to one year the state’s lifetime cap on cash assistance, end child-care subsidies for people who don’t help with fraud investigations and begin scrutiny of lottery winners to see whether welfare recipients raised their income sufficiently to be cut from aid.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Brownback defended the administration’s decision to sign financing and construction contracts for a $20 million energy center project to replace power units if Docking State Office Building is imploded as the administration plans. Amid opposition from legislators, Brownback spiked the construction deal.
“I would state clearly to you and very strongly as well, throughout this process, we have followed the law,” the governor said.
Brownback said the administration had wisely administered the STAR bond program, which relies on state and local sales tax to pay bond debt for large developments. The governor has pushed for taxpayer investment in a plan to draw the American Royal from Kansas City, Mo., to Wyandotte County. The Legislature, however, embraced a measure to block issuance of STAR bonds for that county.