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Child poverty grows in Kansas; proposed fixes emerge

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, June 24, 2013, at 11:59 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 25, 2013, at 5:57 p.m.

TOPEKA – As the number of Kansas kids living in poverty continues to grow, a task force appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback sought Monday to find ways to fix the problem.

In 2005, 15 percent of the state’s children lived in poverty. A new report Monday showed that had grown to 19 percent by 2011. Nationwide, the figure jumped from 19 percent to 23 percent.

Brownback’s task force focused on some fairly obvious ways to combat the problem: Improve graduation rates, expand successful programs that encourage people to work, and strengthen partnerships between government, nonprofits and people.

“I don’t think this is rocket science,” said Sherdeill Breathett, a Sedgwick County economic development specialist and a pastor at St. Mark United Methodist Church. “We make it more difficult than it needs to be.”

Reflecting Brownback’s conservative views, members of the task force also explored ways government can discourage out-of-wedlock births, encourage marriage, reform education and nudge more people off government assistance and into jobs. The panel talked some about promoting healthy relationships to delay or reduce out-of-wedlock births, but there was virtually no discussion of safe sex and birth control.

Among suggestions were eliminating marriage license costs for couples that complete an eight-hour pre-martial education course and a public relations campaign emphasizing the importance of marriage.

The panel’s recommendations, which could still be tweaked, will advance to Brownback’s desk. But the complex details of how to get it done remain. And many of the recommendations suggest Brownback and other state officials simply “consider” or “explore” things.

“There is no one size fits all or a magic bullet or a special formula that’s going to make poverty disappear,” said Michelle Schroeder, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Kansas has long funded a wide variety of programs to assist the poor. But, in the wake of a recession, the state is struggling to reduce the number of kids living in poverty.

A personal story

The ideals discussed by the panel in a downtown Topeka office building remain worlds away from the crowded apartments, empty refrigerators and broken families across the state.

Breathett sought to put a face on it – including his own brothers.

He gave a somber account of two brothers who he said came from a broken home in Chicago, struggled in school, have alcohol problems and are illiterate. With more educational success, Breathett said, he found more opportunities.

He said the prevailing information on poverty is accurate – that education and family makeup are key indicators. His younger brother, for example, completed his education and is doing well and providing a good model for his son.

Dan Lord, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Friends University, said Breathett’s story is one of the many very personal faces of poverty that are represented in the statistics.

“The data that’s been supplied for us is very useful, and yet we can’t pretend that it’s crystal clear,” he said. “It’s very complex.”

Lord said he thinks those in poverty and those who aren’t need to connect more. He said government policy can help foster that but that person-to-person mentorship and government’s ability to update its policies are keys to reducing poverty.

“How will any of our recommendations continue to be monitored, continue to be studied so that adaptation and learning can be built into any effort?” he asked.

The questions come at a key juncture.

Children in poverty

More kids are living in poverty in Kansas, despite some improvements in key areas of health and education, according to the Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

During 2011, at least 19 percent of Kansas children – or 134,000 – were living in poverty, a one percent increase from 2010.

That trend is part of a larger pattern in the country.

A 2012 survey by United Nations Children’s Fund showed the United States has more children living in poverty than almost any other developed nation. It ranked 34 of 35, based on the number of kids growing up in a home where disposable income, adjusted for family makeup, is less than half of the median disposable income of the country.

Brownback’s task force has keyed in on 18 indicators, including out-of-wedlock births, employment stats, education, family education, welfare use and health coverage.

For example, out-of-wedlock births have climbed by 209 percent – from 12 percent of births to 38 percent – since 1980, a figure state official say is tied to the likelihood of kids to be raised in poverty and face a variety of negative life experiences. It emerged as a key factor for state officials.

Federal welfare reform in 1996 led to big declines in poverty nationwide, but it has crept back up.

State officials say things must change because the state and federal spending on poverty is unsustainable.

Kansas’ renewed effort to reduce childhood poverty through education and jobs comes as Brownback’s administration and state lawmakers have enacted stricter rules for welfare and other assistance programs, including drug testing of welfare recipients suspected of drug use and new requirements that force those on welfare to show their searching for work.

The tougher work requirements and other policy changes led to a 37 percent drop in welfare caseloads, the state says.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court prepares to hear an appeal to a ruling by a Shawnee County judicial panel that said the state’s level of funding for schools is unconstitutionally low.

Topeka Rescue Mission Executive Director Barry Feaker questioned how much of a priority childhood poverty is for the state.

DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said it’s one of Brownback’s top priorities, but she acknowledged the debate over government’s role in eliminating poverty.

“If we’re going to collectively do this, it really has to be at the front of the pack,” Feaker said.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brentwistrom.

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