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Kansas agency takes to Facebook, Twitter to defend proposed welfare limits

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A state agency has taken to social media to defend a bill that would restrict what welfare recipients could buy with benefits money in the face of late-night talk show barbs and scrutiny from national news outlets.

Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign the bill, which the Legislature passed earlier this month. It would bar people who receive money through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from using the money at liquor stores, massage parlors, movie theaters, theme parks, swimming pools and cruise ships, among other places.

The list of restrictions – one of a host of changes in the bill – sparked national mockery. Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who carried the bill on the Senate floor, was grilled by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, and the legislation was skewered by “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times wrote editorials criticizing it.

These incidents of ridicule were cataloged in an April 10 editorial in The Eagle.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families, which helped draft the legislation, responded with posts on Facebook and Twitter criticizing “the left” and The Eagle. The text of the Facebook post on the agency’s page was also sent to The Eagle as a letter credited to secretary Phyllis Gilmore.

“While the left is actively mocking the State of Kansas for passing legislation that protects taxpayer dollars and encourages personal responsibility, these are the same individuals who have since 1996, stood in the way of progress, keeping low-income Kansans dependent on assistance,” the post states. “This Administration is helping people by walking alongside them to give them the skills and support they need to find and keep good-paying jobs so they no longer need to count on welfare benefits to pay their bills.”

A number of Facebook users objected to the post, commenting that it was inappropriate for a state agency.

“I really feel that it’s partisan propaganda. I feel like the state agency should not be part of it,” Keri Strahler, a Topeka resident, said in a phone call.

Strahler called the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission to file a complaint against the DCF over the post, but she was told it was out of the commission’s jurisdiction.

Carol Williams, executive director of the commission, which oversees campaign ethics and finance rules, said it had received several calls about the post but that Kansas ethics rules bar a state agency only from endorsing a specific candidate.

The Department of Administration said it also had received several calls complaining about the post but said it has no authority over the matter.

Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the DCF, said in an e-mail that the agency “appropriately responded to outrageous political attacks by liberal media organizations and activists with facts. It is common practice to correct blatantly false statements and distasteful political rhetoric.”

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, accused the DCF of “waging a political-style campaign” and being more concerned with public perception than in improving the lives of families in poverty.

“Before DCF posts another comment on social media, I would encourage them to ask themselves if the statement advances the agency’s mission: ‘To protect children, promote healthy families, and encourage personal responsibility,’ ” Burroughs said in an e-mail. “Attacking news outlets and politicizing public policy does neither and should therefore be avoided.”

Work requirement

The bulk of the DCF’s social media response focuses on another aspect of the bill, which would enshrine in law a policy adopted under Brownback that requires able-bodied adults to work 20 hours a week or enroll in a job training program.

The DCF said the welfare changes led to more than 6,000 beneficiaries obtaining work. Freed said that was the number of beneficiaries who reported employment between December 2013 and 2014.

That requirement has not attracted as much media coverage as the restrictions on where beneficiaries can spend benefits money.

The DCF post said: “No one is banning a low-income family from going to a swimming pool. The Kansas HOPE Act simply says your welfare benefits are there to help you temporarily obtain the basic necessities for your family. Basic necessities include shelter, utilities, food, diapers, etc.”

Freed said welfare recipients could still use TANF money to buy guns and ammo, a fact that had been highlighted by media outlets but disputed by O’Donnell during his MSNBC appearance.

“We are saying taxpayer-funded benefits should be used for necessities. Under the amendment, there is no restriction on a gun purchase,” Freed said. “A gun could be used by a family for security in a dangerous neighborhood or to hunt for food for their family.”

O’Donnell said Monday that he was unaware that TANF money could be used to buy guns when he appeared on “All in With Chris Hayes” last week. He called the media attention the bill has received interesting, but he said that, for the most part, he thinks it’s in tune with what the public wants.

“I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles and looking in the comments section at what people were saying. I think the majority – actually an overwhelming majority of people – believe there does need to be a restriction on benefits,” O’Donnell said.

Freed pointed out that if Brownback signs the bill, Kansas would not be the only state to restrict how TANF beneficiaries can spend money: 23 states had some restriction on the books as of 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Massachusetts, for example, restricts the use of TANF money for cruise ships and tattoo parlors, similar to the Kansas bill. However unlike Kansas, that state also restricts the use of TANF money to buy guns, according to the conference of state legislatures.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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