TOPEKA – A crescent moon hangs in a clear sky above Deer Creek Village.
It is a flat and treeless expanse of 92 townhouses where poor families with bedsheets as curtains live side by side in low-rent duplexes subsidized by the federal government.
Some have a saying here:
One way in, one way out.
It is meant to describe the single road, Colonial Drive, shaped like a Q, that encircles the homes and which residents figure was designed to make it easy for police to come in and hard for drug dealers to escape.
Families here also know it refers to their lives and futures.
One way in: Poverty.
One way out: Jobs and education.
These days, the notion occupying many who advocate for Kansas’ poor is that less than three miles away near the Capitol Dome, government leaders led by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback are making getting out of poverty all the more difficult.
Speaking privately, fearing retribution from the state agencies that help fund their programs, they use terms like “mean,” “heartless” and “vindictive” to describe the selective chipping away at policies designed to help the needy.
“Groups are pretty reticent to talk right now. There is a sense that retaliation is possible,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive of Kansas Action for Children, a Topeka-based advocacy group. “Everybody is concerned that we are shrinking the social safety net. So much of it is happening behind closed doors and under the radar.”
Brownback administrators say they are doing the opposite of abandoning the state’s poor.
Policies they have changed or instituted, they say, are all meant to reduce poverty by promoting fatherhood and education, by helping unemployed Kansans find work and by promoting personal accountability over “handouts.”
“Instead of setting poor people adrift, I would say we are helping them ashore,” said Phyllis Gilmore, a former social worker and Kansas state legislator who now is secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
From the time he campaigned for governor in 2010 until now, Brownback has declared that lifting children out of poverty is a top priority.
Some 384,000 Kansans, or 13.8 percent of the state’s population, live at or below the poverty line, $23,050 a year for a family of four. That’s up by nearly 80,000 people since before the recession hit in 2008. Among children, the numbers have jumped 34,000, from 14.5 percent to nearly 19 percent.
The governor in November appointed a 12-member task force to devise “concrete ideas” to tackle the problem.
But it’s under his administration, advocates say, that the poor are incrementally being pushed aside, and they fear the coming years may be worse.
They point to Brownback’s refusal to date to expand Medicaid under “ObamaCare” – the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. If Brownback does not expand Medicaid – despite the federal government’s pledge to foot 100 percent of the cost of expansion in its early years and 90 percent afterward – 120,000 to 140,000 low-income Kansans will remain uninsured.
“If Jesus was up in the Capitol,” the Rev. Joshua Longbottom of Lawrence shouted to a crowd in November at a Statehouse protest, “would he make a choice to keep 130,000 people without care?”
They fret over the administration’s decision to turn the delivery of Medicaid services over to three private health insurers in a system known as KanCare that started Jan. 1.
The state contends that KanCare will be more efficient and that privatization will stem the tsunami of Medicaid spending and save the state close to $500 million over five years.
But advocates worry that private insurers will boost their bottom lines by refusing or restricting services to the 380,000 poor, disabled and elderly Kansans on Medicaid.
In May, the sweeping Brownback-led tax code changes that eliminated income taxes for an estimated 191,000 small businesses took away longstanding tax breaks for child- and dependent-care expenses and money spent on food taxes that helped a combined 430,000 Kansans, including the working poor.
Another policy, enacted months before, eliminated food stamps to the families of 2,200 Kansas children, all U.S. citizens, because some income in their households came from family members who were in the country illegally. The state determined they should not be counted in the formula to determine benefits.
In November, an early proposal was floated as part of Brownback’s budget that would require low-income parents to work 30 hours a week rather than 20 to qualify for day care assistance.
But the most notable are statistics surrounding the program called TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, best known as welfare.
Families that qualify for TANF cash assistance, which amounts to $280 a month on average, are among the poorest of the poor, with annual incomes no greater than 28 percent of the federal poverty level – about $6,500 for a family of four.
When Brownback took office, 39,000 severely poor Kansans received TANF. Since October 2011, when the administration instituted stricter rules defining who could receive the cash assistance, 38 percent of them – or almost 15,000 people – no longer do.
“If you’re qualifying for TANF, it’s your only cash,” said Sister Therese Bangert, an advocate for the poor with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. “It’s minimal, but it helps people.”
Among the new TANF rules considered most drastic is one that took welfare payments away from the entire family if any child in the house, no matter how wayward, was not attending school.
“I’ve never seen this approach work: cutting people off and hoping for the best,” state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said of the poor. “More and more it would appear that they will be on their own.”
‘Bless this house’
The trials of getting out of poverty are viewed differently when seen from the homes at Deer Creek Village.
Here in this complex run by the Topeka Housing Authority, the realities of the Brownback administration’s policies play out in the lives of real families struggling to move on. What works, what doesn’t, what can be blamed on the administration or on people’s own choices can be as complicated as the lives of the families who live here.
At 5:30 a.m., a light clicks on inside Kamari Hartz’s bedroom. The 13-year-old, small for his age, sits up and wipes the sleep from his eyes.
A prayer book sits at his bedside. He picks it up as he does every night and many mornings to read a devotion, “The Mighty One,” urging him to think daily of God’s love.
“Sometimes I’m just anxious to pray,” he would explain. “It makes me feel better.”
The eldest of eight brothers and sisters – both step and biological – Kamari knows he’s the lucky one in the home. He has a bed of his own.
In his room, his brother Donoven, 10, sleeps back-to-back in a twin bed with Daveon, 6, who twists and kicks at night. One room over, Kira, 11 – who wants to be a police officer – squeezes head-to-toe on a twin bed with her impish 5-year-old twin sisters, Desiree and Desire.
Downstairs, the parents stir.
Terrance Hartz, 30, and Tasha Hartz, 28, sleep on separate couches with Tasha curled near the babies, Ciara, 2, and 10-month-old Terrance Jr., on a twin bed nearby.
The 10 Hartzes feel fortunate to have this clean, federally subsidized apartment. They have minimal furniture: the couches, the beds, a modest television tucked inside an entertainment center. Prayers hang on the walls:
“Bless this house as we come and go/ Bless this house as the children grow …”
In many ways, the Hartzes acknowledge, living here is the best they’ve had it in years.
Their financial situation is as stark as their lives have often been.
Raised in adoptive foster care by a caring mom, Tasha also had a strict stepfather, she said, who “whooped me like a man.”
At 16, she was pregnant. At 17, she gave birth the same year her adoptive mother died suspiciously in bed, sending Tasha spiraling into years of drug use.
The father of her four children would eventually do time for armed robbery and, later, for murdering her brother in a drunken scuffle in front of her.
“It wasn’t me,” Tasha said of her life then. “I knew I had to get away. God opened a door for me.”
It led to Kansas, where Tasha had relatives. And it led to Terrance.
Like Tasha, he grew up hard, in Wisconsin, coming to Kansas to be with his mom, who was caring for Kamari and Kira.
Homeless at first, he and Tasha met at the Topeka Rescue Mission. Together, they went to church, as they still do, twice a week.
He told her about how he was raised in dire poverty, how at age 8 he was molested by a relative. At 17, he took his first hit of crack and, in time, was addicted.
He worked small jobs. He got certified as a nursing assistant, but he also stole – soap, clothes, shoes, pretty much anything.
“I was a professional booster,” he said. “It was part of my addiction.”
By 2009, he was tired “of the same old stuff going on.”
Now, neither he nor Tasha is employed, although they search constantly.
Terrance was fired from a $9.83-an-hour kitchen job when his addiction flared again. Tasha lost her job in juvenile corrections when she missed too much work to care for the kids as Terrance struggled to get straight, which he did.
Terrance’s $231-a-month unemployment check ran out last week, and they have no cash.
They’re not sure how they’ll pay their tiny rent, $72 a month, or the $300 in utilities.
There will be nothing for clothes. Nothing for gas.
Soon, their sole aid will be the $1,379 in food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), that they get at the start of each month.
“We don’t run out of food. We run out of money,” Terrance says.
In Kansas, the food stamp program has grown substantially under Brownback – jumping 21 percent, from 260,000 to 315,000 recipients, since he took office. Monthly spending per person has nearly doubled, from $66 to $125.
Even at $16,500 a year in food stamps, if the Hartzes’ food benefits were counted as income, they’d still be living at less than 40 percent of the federal poverty level for a family their size.
Still, they feel blessed.
Inside the apartment, the world is quiet and orderly.
“With eight kids, it has to be,” Terrance says as he prepares a bath for the infant and Tasha washes, lotions and dresses the 2-year-old for day care.
Now, each morning, in relative silence, everyone goes about their chores before school.
The older children help dress the little ones, who help sweep the floor.
“I do the ironing,” Donoven says, pressing the younger kids’ clothes flat on the freezer top.
Terrance isn’t sure how he and his family will make their way out of poverty, or even what the role of the state should be. He has a notion.
“Kamari! Kira!” he shouts up the stairs.
The clock ticks toward 7:15 a.m., time to hop in the van.
His plan centers on the kids and education – theirs and his.
Soon Terrance will drive the kids five miles across town, to what the Hartzes see as the better west-side schools.
“We frequently say, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to be a doctor? Do you want to be a lawyer?’ ” Terrance says. “’You have to go to school. You have to get good grades.”
Terrance is trying himself. Clean of drugs, he goes to vocational rehab at night twice a week. While the kids are in school, he’s in classes at Washburn University.
He took out a federal loan. He can’t recall how much it’s for and doesn’t know how he’ll pay it back. He wants a career in public administration.
It will take years. He’s getting mostly C’s and often is so tired at night, after picking up eight children, cooking dinner and doing his homework, that he sometimes thinks of quitting.
Tasha occasionally lands low-wage temporary work, but nothing has lasted more than a week or so.
To get TANF cash assistance, under state requirements she would have to make 20 job search contacts a week.
“We are trying each day to do the right thing, and be real to our kids,” Terrance says. “We are trying to be examples with a set of morals and values.
“Overall, for each and every one of my kids, I want them not to have a criminal record; I want them to stay out of trouble; I want them to have scholarships to go to school.
“I don’t want my kids to go through the things I went through. We want them to be successful.”
State makes its case
Kansas officials say they want the same.
They insist that concerns that the sky is gradually falling on the state’s poor are either premature speculation or flat wrong.
They make their case:
• KanCare: It’s new, they say, and the benefit of serving the state’s 380,000 Medicaid recipients through three private health insurers needs to be borne out.
Regarding the fear that providers could boost their bottom lines by restricting care: “Absolutely not true,” said Miranda Steele, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
In fact, she says, many procedures not previously covered will be covered under KanCare, including dental care, heart and lung transplants and bariatric surgery for morbid obesity.
“They’re getting more,” Steele said.
In Kansas, as in all states, Medicaid costs have been growing at an average annual rate of 7.4 percent for years. Medicaid is a combination federal-state program that is expected to cost about $3.2 billion this year, with about $1.8 billion coming from the feds and $1.4 billion from Kansas.
KanCare won’t reduce the cost, but it is predicted to slow growth to about 4.6 percent a year, Steele said, saving Kansas $480 million over five years.
• Eliminating food tax credits and rebates for child care and dependent care.
The decision was not meant to punish but goes to a philosophy on taxes and how best to help the poor, said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.
“His philosophy is to remove our social policies from our tax policies,” she said. “The governor truly believes that the best way to help someone out of poverty is a well-paying job.”
Instead of doling out the money to people individually in the form of small checks, she said, the governor thinks the money should be pooled and put into programs that help more people overall.
Some 365,000 Kansans, for example, are reimbursed each year for the taxes they pay on food. The checks average $145, which, although helpful, is unlikely to change lives. But when combined, the money adds up to $53 million.
Instead of a “one-time check,” Jones-Sontag said, “we should develop a program that could help more Kansans with sustained aid throughout the year.”
• Not expanding Medicaid: It’s up in the air.
“The governor hasn’t made any decision yet,” Jones-Sontag said.
Medicaid now covers poor children and their parents, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly. To qualify for Medicaid in Kansas, a parent with children can make no more than 32 percent of the federal poverty level, about $7,370 a year for a mother and three kids. It’s one of the lowest eligibility rates in the country. Medicaid in Kansas does not cover poor, able-bodied adults without kids.
Should Kansas expand Medicaid in 2014, it would add poor childless adults to its rolls and raise the eligibility for coverage to 133 percent of federal poverty, or about $30,650 for a mother with three children.
Estimates on what this would cost the state vary greatly.
The federal government says it would cost relatively little because it has pledged to pay 100 percent of the costs for “newly eligible” enrollees in the first three years, a commitment that drops to and remains at 90 percent in 2020 and beyond. It also would pay 57 percent of the costs of uninsured people who were previously eligible for Medicaid but had never enrolled.
In December, a report by Kansas Health Institute estimated that Medicaid expansion would add 240,000 adults and children to the current 380,000, costing the state $70 million in its first year, a relatively small amount added to its $1.4 billion share. Between 2014 and 2020, it estimated the extra state cost to be about $519 million.
But Brownback is concerned about the potential hit Kansas would take, Jones-Sontag said, if years from now a debt-laden federal government can’t meet its commitment and the state is stuck with an obligation and bills totaling billions of dollars.
Falling welfare numbers
Then there’s cash assistance, or TANF.
Policy changes enacted 14 months ago have prompted almost 15,000 Kansans, more than 9,000 of them children, to fall from the TANF rolls.
Gilmore, who runs the Department for Children and Families, said the numbers are not negative. They do not, as critics contend, reflect people being kicked aside because of onerous rules.
Nor are the numbers a result of cold-heartedness toward people in places like Deer Creek.
Instead, Gilmore said, the falling numbers show that the new, stricter policies – which prod adults to look for jobs early, require parents to keep their kids in school and have cut the number of months they can receive benefits – are working.
Families are falling off the rolls because they no longer need the money, she said.
“They are finding and getting jobs,” Gilmore insists, although the state’s own numbers suggest an additional reason, as well: denial of benefits.
In October 2011, the same month Kansas officials implemented stricter TANF eligibility rules, monthly denials of benefits rose from 66 percent to 74 percent, where they have remained.
In Missouri, about 35 percent of TANF applications are denied monthly.
Kansas Department for Children and Families statistics show that the only category that took a significant jump in terms of reasons for denial had to do with paperwork: failure to provide requested verification.
Gilmore and others point to people like Jennifer Strausbaugh.
Age 36, unmarried, Strausbaugh lives at her parents’ Spring Hill, Kan., home with her 9-year-old daughter, Kayla.
For five years, she worked full-time at a Johnson County jewelry company, making $15.25 an hour with benefits.
“I loved everybody there,” she says. But in 2007, she injured her back and exhausted her medical leave.
“They had to let me go,” she says.
For five years, life turned difficult. As a mom, she received $284 a month in TANF cash assistance and $300 in food stamps. Because she had Kayla, she had Medicaid.
Without her parents’ room and board, she wouldn’t have survived, she said. She struggled to find work.
“For cash assistance, you have to have at least 20 job contacts a week. It’s a lot,” Strausbaugh says. “It took up at least, you know, five hours a day to look for those. It’s depressing. You’re not going anywhere and doing anything. No one is contacting you.”
Then twice – in 2008 and in 2011 – she became part of a state-supported WEP, or transitional work experience program, in Overland Park. She was an “intern” doing part-time office work for the state.
She got no pay. Her cash assistance dropped to $206 a month. But for working 19 hours a week, her job search requirement was reduced to 10 contacts a week. Plus, she felt she was building her resume.
“I loved it,” Strausbaugh said. “They wanted me to work every day of the week. I said, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have enough gas money to come up here every day.’ They give you a gas allowance, but it wasn’t enough. I had to cut back to three days a week.”
A full-time spot opened in the agency where she worked in late 2011. In February, she interviewed.
“I was in the middle of Walmart one day when I received a phone call from the boss. They said they wanted to offer me the job. I said, ‘Yes! Yes!’ They didn’t have to tell me anything about it.”
Making $13.61 an hour with benefits, she no longer receives TANF, food stamps or Medicaid.
Instead of getting state aid, she earns a state paycheck. Strausbaugh is a receptionist with the Department for Children and Families, helping clients access their welfare benefits, “just like I would have.”
A ‘bit of a push’
Several new TANF policies are criticized harshly by advocates for the poor.
One cuts the total number of months poor people can receive cash over a lifetime from 60 to 48.
Another requires individuals to begin the 20-jobs-a-week search while their applications are being processed.
A third, about “accountability,” Gilmore said, cuts off all family TANF even if one child is not enrolled in school. Almost all other states reduce the benefit.
“It’s an incentive to make sure they’re involved in the education of their children,” she said.
Although advocates for the poor see the changes as harsh, not all poor people do.
Laura Perez, 32, is a single mom in Wichita with a son, 5, and daughter, 10. Out of work for two years, and out of time to receive TANF, she believes cutting the benefit works to thrust people into the job hunt.
“I think it gives them the little bit of a push,” she said. “When they know they have the money coming in through welfare, they know they don’t have to look.”
Perez recently completed a three-month, state-supported work program at the Green Leaf restaurant, essentially the cafeteria in Wichita for the Department for Children and Families.
The result since November is a 20-hour-per-week job paying $7.40 an hour at McDonald’s that she’s grateful to have.
Anecdotes are not data.
What critics complain the state cannot do – and state officials concede the fact – is say precisely how many of the 6,000 or so adults who have fallen from the TANF rolls actually have jobs.
“Where’s the proof?” said Kelly, the Topeka senator.
Gilmore said that although officials do not have the data to back up their claim, they feel it’s a natural assumption.
TANF jobs requirements have been tightened. Numbers are falling. So, she said, either people are finding jobs or they don’t need the money badly enough to do what’s required to receive it.
To some, she said, that may sound harsh.
“Someone just gave me a book, ‘When Helping Hurts,’ ” said Gilmore, citing a Christian-themed work on empowering the poor. “Sometimes it does hurt to help someone. It’s not just giving handout, handout, handout.”
The state has made what it believes are positive rules that help lift people out of poverty: Stay in school, look for a job. If people don’t want to follow those rules, “then don’t use my money,” Gilmore said.
‘Not doing enough’
Back at Deer Creek, doors away from the Hartzes, Jessica Kunnard points to a spot on the floor beneath a window.
It’s her crying spot, she says.
It’s where at night she will slump to the floor after work at the fish store, her skin saturated with the smell, and after the kids have gone to bed.
“I’m not going to lie,” says Jessica, 28. “Nine times out of 10, I cry myself to sleep. A lot of times I feel like I’m not doing enough for kids. I feel alone.”
One door over lives her best friend, Kassandra “Cassy” Fletcher, and her common-law husband, Terl Tobias, both 27.
Jessica, who is divorced, has two children, Gabe, 7, and Lily, 5.
Cassy’s daughter, 8, and son, 6, went to live with Cassy’s father after she and Terl fell on hard times when Cassy briefly became hooked on painkillers after a back injury at a warehouse job.
That was in 2008 when Cassy made decent money, $12.75 an hour. Terl worked as a restaurant cook – jobs good enough for them to get a mortgage on a $75,000 home with hope for the future.
A self-described take-no-guff juvenile delinquent when he was younger, Terl came from poverty – “below poor would be an accurate assessment,” he said.
An R.I.P. tattoo on one shoulder is dedicated to teenage friends, a drug dealer who got shot 23 times and one who died while fleeing police.
But the other shoulder bears the names of Cassy’s and Terl’s kids – the reason, he said, for straightening out his life.
“I got to take care of them,” Terl said. “I can’t get into trouble no more.”
After Cassy got hurt, she lost her job. Terl lost his when the restaurant closed. Bills piled up and they lost the house to foreclosure, propelling them toward homelessness.
But now they have this apartment. Cassy, who has recovered, is excited.
“My dad said at the end of the school year the kids are coming home,” she said.
Getting the children back will help. Poor, able-bodied adults with no children get virtually no state benefits.
Cassy and Terl have no money. No cash. No TANF. No Medicaid. Having the kids will allow them to get benefits, including food stamps.
Until Terl recently got a job at a pizza place, he worked the morning shift at Burger King and would eat there.
“Sometimes we walk down to the Dollar Store for food,” Cassy said. “Or we’ll eat at Jessica’s. She has food stamps.”
Jessica makes barely $100 a week at the fish store and tried to get TANF.
“They told me I wasn’t approved for it,” she said. She isn’t sure why.
With no car, she said, it’s hard to make 20 job contacts a week or get to interviews that are beyond walking distance. She has no computer to search. She can go to the library after work, but it’s chancy. City buses in Topeka stop running at 6:15 p.m.
By the time work ends, she rides the bus to the library, searches for jobs and gets home, it’s late. The neighborhood’s not the safest. The kids need her.
Plus, philosophically, she’s against it.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people who mooched off the government,” she said. “I didn’t want to say I am just going to draw cash assistance and sit at home.”