November 17, 2013

Eagle editorial: Policy, poor disconnect

There is a jarring disconnect between the struggles of low-income families and the policies coming out of Topeka and Washington, D.C.

There is a jarring disconnect between the struggles of low-income families and the policies coming out of Topeka and Washington, D.C.

Here are some realities facing Kansas families:

•  Kansas’ unemployment rate has risen from 5.5 percent in January to 5.9 percent in August.
•  Kansas’ poverty rate was 14 percent in 2012, the most recent data available. That’s up from 13.6 percent in 2010 and 13.8 percent in 2011. About 19 percent of the state’s children are living in poverty.
•  The Kansas Food Bank expects to provide backpacks of food to up to 8,000 children by the end of this school year, which would be a record.
•  Educators and social workers have so far identified 1,524 homeless school-age children and 108 early childhood homeless children in the Wichita school district.

Here is how the Brownback administration and Congress have responded:

•  The Kansas Department of Children and Families has tightened eligibility requirements for welfare, food stamps and child-care assistance. This fall it turned away a federal grant to help identify and enroll people who qualify for food stamps.
•  Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature have refused to allow a federal expansion of Medicaid, which would enable about 150,000 poor or near-poor Kansans to receive health insurance.
•  Starting this month, about 317,000 Kansans, nearly half of them children, receive less in federal food-stamp assistance.
•  Congress is debating further cuts to food stamps, as much as $40 billion per year.

Most people likely agree with the Brownback administration’s goal of reducing dependency on welfare. Many may also believe that the best source for assistance to the poor is through private charities and not the government.

Though these are good ideals, they don’t always work in the real world.

For example, reducing aid to try to force people to get jobs doesn’t work if there are no jobs available. And though churches and other charities do great work helping feed and care for the needy, they don’t have nearly enough resources to meet the demand.

Though Brownback expects his state income tax cuts to spur the economy and reduce unemployment, so far that hasn’t happened. Instead, many low-income Kansans are paying more in taxes while the state is cutting social services.

Other Brownback efforts to combat poverty have also ended up costing the poor. For example, the elementary school reading iniative he announced last week would be paid for by shifting money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“It doesn’t make sense to shift dollars away from struggling families to programs that focus on literacy later in a child’s life,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.

Poverty and unemployment are difficult problems to solve. Though some aid programs are effective, others aren’t – so state and federal governments should consider new approaches and reforms.

But there shouldn’t be such a disconnect between these reforms and the realities facing families.

Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland recently highlighted this disconnect by contrasting the Brownback administration’s policies with Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “I was hungry, and you cut my food stamps. I was sick, and you refused to expand Medicaid.”

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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