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Eagle editorial: Safety net is shrinking

  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.

Good for Gov. Sam Brownback for creating a task force to combat childhood poverty. But if he really wants to help struggling Kansans, he also should reverse some of his administration’s policies that have made their lives harder.

Poverty is a growing problem in Kansas. According to 2010 data, 18.1 percent of the state’s children live below the poverty level (which is $23,050 for a family of four). That’s a 53 percent increase since 1970.

The childhood-poverty rate in Sedgwick County is even higher – 20.4 percent. And a new analysis by Kansas State University researchers of various factors influencing family status ranks Sedgwick County 92nd for the well-being of children out of the state’s 105 counties. In other words, near the bottom.

Wichita also had a 50 percent increase in child poverty between 2005 and 2011 – the fourth-highest rate increase among the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.

“All too often in our state, children who are living in poverty today become tomorrow’s poor parents,” Brownback said in a statement, adding that “we need concrete ideas on how to change this pattern.”

The makeup of the task force seems skewed to social conservatism. Likely as a result, a focus of its first meeting this week was on issues such as unwed mothers and stressing the importance of religious faith in the development of health marriages.

Though these can be key risk factors for poverty – particularly single parenthood and education level – the task force and Brownback also need to consider the impact of some of the policy decisions of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

For example, the 2012 Kids Count report shows that the numbers of Kansas children enrolled in Medicaid and receiving food stamps have increased while the numbers receiving cash and child-care subsidies have dropped.

“Kansas has been dealing with some of the highest unemployment in the last 40 years, and yet the department’s public assistance reports show a 31 percent decline in the number of people on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) between July of 2011 and September of 2012,” Paul Johnson, a former lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic Conference, told the Kansas Health Institute News Service. “At a time when families are struggling and those numbers should be going up – they’re going down.”

One reason is that the department reduced the lifetime cap for TANF benefits from 60 to 48 months. It also increased the work requirement to qualify for child-care subsidies – and is considering raising it again as part of a possible 10 percent cut to agency budgets next fiscal year.

Brownback also has tried to eliminate some tax credits that benefit low-income Kansans, and he wanted to make permanent the statewide sales-tax increase, which would disproportionately affect the poor.

It is good to talk about marriage and faith, but safety-net programs are crucial to helping kids in poverty. And in Kansas, that net is shrinking.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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