Politics & Government

Gov. Sam Brownback signs welfare restrictions into law

Gov. Sam Brownback signs a bill tightening restrictions on use of welfare benefits. Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, sits at the governor’s left.
Gov. Sam Brownback signs a bill tightening restrictions on use of welfare benefits. Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department for Children and Families, sits at the governor’s left. The Wichita Eagle

Welfare recipients in Kansas will face prohibitions on where benefit money can be spent, as well as stricter requirements for eligibility and a shorter time frame to receive benefits, under a bill signed Thursday by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Brownback touted the bill as a way to promote self reliance and lift people out of poverty by pushing them back into the workforce.

“The primary focus of the bill is to get people back to work,” he said. “Because that’s where the real benefit is. getting people off public assistance and back into the marketplace with the dignity and far more income there than the pittance that government gives them.

“And I hope we don’t lose track of the primary focus of what we’re after here.”

He and Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, spoke out against national criticism that has been levied against HB 2258 in recent weeks over a prohibition against spending welfare money at movie theaters, massage parlors, cruise ships and swimming pools, among other places.

Gilmore called the bill the most comprehensive welfare reform passed by any state in the country.

“We encourage other states to look to Kansas on how to help end government dependency,” she said, calling government dependency a “disservice to the individual, a disservice to our culture and certainly a disservice to the taxpayer.”

The bill enshrines in law several policies adopted during Brownback’s first term, including a requirement that able-bodied adults work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through a job training program in order to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. DCF credits this policy with putting more than 6,000 people back into the workforce last year.

By signing the law, Brownback ensures that the policies will continue after he leaves office.

Cycle of poverty

Brownback said employment is one of the main factors in lifting a person out of poverty. He added that family structure was the most important factor.

However, some elements of bill have been criticized as anti-family. If a person is found to commit benefits fraud, that person and other adults in the home would be banned for life from receiving public assistance dollars. Critics say this provision would penalize people for being married if one spouse abuses the system without the other’s knowledge.

A person convicted of two drug felonies would face a lifetime ban from food assistance.

Brownback said that he is open to changes if there are problems after the bill goes into effect July 1.

“I’m open to revisiting all of it, if it’s not working,” he said. “If it’s working to get people back into the marketplace and back on their feet, I want to see us to continue to be strong.”

Democrats have been critical of the legislation, which they say is mean-spirited.

“Child poverty and homelessness in Kansas are at record levels. … And, now, the governor has signed a punitive and highly judgmental piece of legislation that imposes illogical reforms that make it harder for Kansans in need to break the cycle and climb out of poverty,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, in an e-mail.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said the bill “does nothing to address the root causes of poverty in our state.”

Penalties for violators

Gilmore did not give a specific answer on what penalty beneficiaries would face if they tried to spend their money at a restricted business such as a tattoo parlor. She said this would constitute a policy violation but not benefits fraud.

Another provision in the bill limits the amount of TANF money a person can withdraw from ATM to $25 a day.

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, said that these two provisions are meant to ensure that the money is spent on necessities.

Asked whether he thought that poor people couldn’t be trusted to spend their benefits money responsibly, he responded, “Most can. Absolutely most can.”

Couture-Lovelady said that even though “most people don’t commit murder” we still have laws that make it illegal. “The key point is that it hurts the folks who are using the program in the correct manner when the money is spent in these incorrect manners,” he said.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said the bill does more than restrict where welfare recipients can spend their money. She highlighted that the legislation would require a woman to return to work shortly after having a baby in order to keep her assistance and that the bill makes it more difficult to qualify for child-care assistance.

“By signing this bill into law, Gov. Brownback has added to the burden that the poorest Kansans already carry. … It’s always been hard to be poor in Kansas. Now, it’s going to be a lot harder,” she said in an e-mail.

Former beneficiary speaks

Valerie Cahill, a former TANF beneficiary, spoke in support of the law at the governor’s signing ceremony. Cahill, a Wyandotte County resident, was Brownback’s guest at the State of the State address and testified on behalf of the legislation in the House and Senate.

Cahill said she was on TANF for 11 months and has been working since 2014 after going through the state’s job training program. She said that with money from her paycheck, she was able to buy her son, a musician, his first cello – something she never could have done while on TANF.

After the ceremony, she would not say what her new job is. She said it was “state-related.”

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

What HB 2258 does

▪ Sets a 36-month lifetime limit for a person to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, more commonly known as welfare.

▪ Requires able-bodied adults to work 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a job-training program to qualify for benefits.

▪ Limits welfare recipients to withdrawing $25 from an ATM in a day using their electronic benefits transfer card.

▪ Restricts people from spending benefits money at sporting events, liquor stores, casinos, jewelry stores, tattoo and piercing parlors, nail salons, massage parlors, lingerie shops, horse or dog racing facilities, swimming pools, movie theaters, video arcades, bail bond companies, cruise ships and sexually oriented businesses.

▪ Suspends benefits for anyone who tests positive for drugs. Children living in the home would still be eligible for benefits that would go through a designated payee, such as relative or neighbor.

▪ Bans a person from receiving food assistance if he or she is convicted of two drug felonies.

▪ Bans adults for life from receiving cash assistance if another adult in the home commits benefits fraud.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle