Politics & Government

Brownback touts child poverty drop, but progress uneven

The figure is eye-catching: The number of Kansas children in poverty dropped by 26 percent over the past five years.

Gov. Sam Brownback touted that statistic and others this week, directly linking the decline to his welfare policies.

"By encouraging work over reliance, we have broken the cycle of poverty for thousands of Kansans," Brownback said. "Our policies are good for Kansas families, the economy and taxpayers."

But there’s more to the numbers than meets the eye.

The percentage of Kansas children in poverty is now in line with the rate before the Great Recession, well before the state reduced access to welfare benefits.

And the pace of progress isn’t universal. The poverty rate for black children has held steady since 2012, and black and Hispanic children continue to have a higher poverty rate than the state as a whole. Child poverty is also more acute in Wichita than in the rest of Kansas.

The number of Kansas children in poverty sits at 99,000, or 14 percent, according to 2016 data released by Kids Count, a nationally recognized data source about children in the U.S. That’s down from 134,000, or 19 percent, in 2011 when Brownback took office.

Between 2000 and 2008, the rate didn’t go above 16 percent in Kansas. It began increasing in 2009 during the height of the recession.

The 26 percent reduction in child poverty during Brownback’s time in office also comes as child poverty has declined 14 percent nationwide.

"Approximately 99,000 Kansas children remain in poverty, so there is work left to do, but we are clearly heading in the right direction, and Kansas is leading other states to consider welfare reforms like ours, which encourage self-reliance and result in better outcomes for participants," Brownback said.

The Legislature passed, and Brownback signed, a bill in 2015 called the HOPE Act. It requires able-bodied adults to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through job training in order to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The bill placed into law that policy and others that Brownback had implemented administratively during his first term.

Another bill in 2016 reduced the number of months a family can be in the TANF, or welfare, program from 36 months to 24 months, unless the family gets a hardship exemption. The lifetime limit on the program was lowered from four years to three years.

Kansas Action for Children, which opposes Brownback’s welfare policies, said Kansas had a great year in reducing childhood poverty like most other states and that all progress should be celebrated. But continued success is far from certain, it said.

Some children living in poverty in Kansas do not have access to safety net programs, such as those that provide cash assistance to their parents or help pay for food and medical care, said John Wilson, vice president of advocacy at KAC.

"The official poverty measure (which Governor Brownback is citing) does not measure these programs’ impact on families’ financial well-being and provides an incomplete picture of families’ financial need," Wilson said.

Progress on poverty has also depended on the demographics of the children.

The child poverty rate for black or African American children in Kansas dropped from 46 percent to 32 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to Kids Count. Since then, it has held relatively steady, and is now at 32 percent – far above the percentage for all children.

The rate for Hispanic or Latino children dropped from 33 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2016.

In Wichita, the decline has been relatively modest. The child poverty rate is 25 percent, down from 27 percent in 2011.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, said he hasn’t seen in his district in central-west Wichita the drop in child poverty reported statewide. He said he has spoken to many families who have been limited by the HOPE Act.

"The struggle they are facing is as great as ever. They’ve just been cut off faster," Rogers said. "To me, it has not helped families in my district or what I see in the Wichita area or even statewide."

Rogers said he is hopeful the Legislature will re-examine welfare policy during the legislative session that begins in January.

The odds of a major reversal appear slim. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who would become governor is Brownback is confirmed as the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, has given no indication he does not support the current law.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, chairs the House health committee and is a leading proponent of the HOPE Act.

He expressed exasperation that some want to change the law.

"Why would you do anything that puts more people back on welfare? Why wouldn’t you have policies that get people off of welfare?" Hawkins said.

Hawkins said he doesn’t expect lawmakers to reopen the policy during the next session, but said things could change depending on who is elected governor in 2018.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman