Kansas offers ‘detour’ to poverty

By Rod Haxton, editor

For decades, this nation has tried to find ways to reduce poverty.

From the soup lines and the famous Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Great Depression to modern day WIC (Women, Infant and Children) programs, government-driven efforts have been instrumental in providing much-needed assistance to those in need.

Have these programs been successful? To a large degree, yes.

Have they been abused? Without question, it will happen. But what program involving government money doesn’t have some level of abuse? The same can be said of defense spending and farm subsidy programs just as easily as critics can point to abuses within public assistance programs.

And while no one seems willing to take on defense contractors and the farm lobby, there is no shortage of politicians willing to balance the budget on the backs of those who have no voice and even less political power.

That’s why it was politically painless for Gov. Brownback to go after those who “abuse” public assistance efforts in Kansas with his welfare-to-work program.

On its surface, welfare-to-work makes sense. The key to reducing poverty, says Brownback, is to get people off the assistance rolls and into the workforce.

No argument here.

How that is done, becomes an issue.

Policies enacted by the Brownback Administration have, without question, reduced the number of people getting public assistance. In September of 2013, the Brownback Administration announced the expiration of a food assistance waiver that had the immediate effect of removing more than 20,000 people off SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

This has occurred at the same time the percentage of Kansas children living at or below the poverty line has jumped from 19 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2013, according to the KIDS Count data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Initiatives such as this have allowed the Brownback Administration to claim that Kansas welfare rolls have been cut in half because more people are working in Kansas. Statistically, that’s true. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) enrollment has dropped from 38,963 in the 2011 budget year to 17,681 in the current budget year. During this same time, there’s been a 27 percent drop in the number of low-income parents (primarily single mothers) receiving monthly child care subsidy payments.

It’s all those new, great paying jobs that have been created, right?

Well, not exactly. In reality, the reason why welfare assistance has declined is because the state is denying more claims. When the state’s stricter TANF eligibility rules took effect in October of 2011, the monthly denial of benefits climbed from 66 percent to 74 percent.

Disqualifying people for assistance doesn’t mean they suddenly find a job that will keep them above the poverty line or that their needs are miraculously met. Instead, Kansas has adopted a more simplistic approach - out of sight, out of mind.

“Reducing the number of Kansans receiving public assistance isn’t the same thing as reducing poverty,” says Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children.

For example, the percentage of Kansas children receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school has climbed from about 47 percent (2010-11 school year) to more than 50 percent this year - an all-time high.

 

So while a record-setting number of school-age children are qualifying for assistance, the state is making a significant cut in assistance to families in need.

“It means fewer poor people are receiving services that are meant to lift them out of poverty,” noted Cotsoradis.

And finding employment doesn’t necessarily mean the end of poverty. Many of the jobs being filled by former welfare recipients pay wages that keep them in poverty, according to Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. She says more than 25 percent of working Kansans need some kind of help to pay for food, utilities, transportation and child care.

Funneling Kansans into low-wage jobs isn’t a path to prosperity, but a “detour to poverty,” emphasizes McKay.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be encouraged to work, when possible, and to find jobs, when they’re available. But neither should it suggest that employment automatically means a single-mother or a family is no longer in need of some assistance.

“They’re still poor,” says Debbie Snapp, who runs the Catholic Social Service office in Dodge City which serves about 2,700 evening meals to the city’s homeless and low-income. But instead of getting help from the state, these people are turning to charitable organizations who are seeing their resources stretched to the limit.

That’s the reality which the Brownback Administration and GOP lawmakers in Topeka refuse to acknowledge.

They’d rather look at the numbers in a way which supports their perception that fewer people on public assistance means fewer people in need of assistance.

We’re talking about people’s lives.

And their lives don’t improve just because they don’t show up in the state’s budget. 

Rod Haxton can be reached at editor@screcord.com

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