Politics & Government

Brownback cut welfare in Kansas. Is Congress about to follow?

Gov. Sam Brownback, front right, signs legislation Monday, May 16, 2016, that will tighten the state's lifetime limits on cash assistance.
Gov. Sam Brownback, front right, signs legislation Monday, May 16, 2016, that will tighten the state's lifetime limits on cash assistance. AP

Welfare restrictions and work requirements have knocked tens of thousands of Kansans off assistance over the past few years. Many get kicked out for not working, but only a small percentage leave because they have a job, the latest federal data reveals.

Republicans in Congress have said they want to tackle welfare reform. Some, including Rep. Ron Estes of Wichita, say Washington, D.C. should look to Kansas as an example, but it’s unclear whether program cuts in Kansas left recipients better off.

During his time as governor, Gov. Sam Brownback lowered lifetime caps on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 months to 24 months and implemented work requirements for recipients. The Republican-controlled Legislature also acted to place many of the changes made by Brownback into law.

Federal data released in October shows that last year only 9.2 percent of Kansas recipients are getting off assistance because they’re employed. Nationwide the rate is 19.7 percent.

At the same time, 21.8 percent of Kansas recipients lost benefits for not complying with work requirements. The U.S. average is 5.7 percent.

“Communities are suffering and families are suffering because we have put barriers up,” Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, said.

Murnan was director of the Family Resource Center in Pittsburg for 15 years. As an example, she said that in 2012 the organization provided child care for 37 kids who were TANF child care assistance recipients. This year, the number is only 18.

On average, nearly 39,000 people received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a month in 2011 in Kansas. That’s fallen to 11,139 this year.

Costs declined, too. TANF spending dropped from $52 million in 2011 to about $15 million during the most recent fiscal year, according to state data.

Supporters of the welfare changes in Kansas point to research from the Foundation for Government Accountability, an organization that has praised the Kansas policies. The foundation says individuals on TANF have higher incomes on average after leaving the program.

“If you can expand that work requirement, or training requirement, within public assistance, you can really expand the people that get out of poverty, which should be our objective,” Brownback said.

Small number leave for jobs

The Eagle jointly asked the governor’s office and the Department for Children and Families how they square claims that welfare reform is helping people out of poverty with federal data showing only a small percent leave because of employment.

DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said the agency “allows its clients to voluntarily close their assistance cases at any time, and they are not required by law to report why they are closing” their case.

She acknowledged that only 9 to 10 percent of recipients list new employment as a reason. Others offer no explanation, she said.

The percentage of welfare cases closed in Kansas for “other” reasons is 31.5 percent – in line with the national average of 30.4 percent.

Forrest pointed to the findings of a Foundation for Government Accountability study. A July report from the group said that in Kansas TANF recipients who left saw an average income increase of 104 percent within a year, and nearly 250 percent within four years.

The report also said that between 2000 and 2011, the workforce participation rate of Kansas adults on TANF averaged 19.2 percent, but that the rate rose after that to 36.4 percent.

“I think it did exactly what it’s supposed to do. It got people trained and back to work. We’re made to work, people are made to work and we get a lot of self-worth from work so I think that’s just a very important thing for people to do,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Kansas a welfare guide

Congress may look to Kansas as it contemplates changes to welfare.

“The goal of welfare reform is to help our fellow citizens become self-sustaining as quickly as possible. Many of the innovations in Kansas will be great guides for welfare reform in Washington,” Estes said in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump have previously spoken about tackling entitlement reform in 2018. Recent comments from both men have brought into question whether Congress will work on the issue immediately, however.

Brownback called the possibility of national action on welfare a “wonderful idea.”

What Trump and Congress may ultimately propose is murky, although some reports suggest Republicans will look at expanding welfare work requirements. The Trump administration has already signaled openness to greater work requirements on food assistance.

In Kansas, the monthly average number of individuals receiving food assistance fell from 136,995 in 2011 to 110,120 in 2017.

“Our local food pantries have higher numbers, our churches are reaching out to more people and our schools are filling in the gaps,” Murnan said.

Annie McKay, director of Kansas Action for Children, a group critical of the state’s welfare policies, said Congress should instead focus on investing in job training, career and technical education, higher education, and child care assistance.

Most of the beneficiaries of food assistance “are children and seniors,” McKay said. “If Congress genuinely wants to reduce barriers to employment and help parents find work, then adding work requirements to (food assistance) is the wrong approach. All that will do is create hungrier kids and seniors.”

In his last State of the State address, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday that the state should add $600 million in education funding over the next five years.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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