Gov. Sam Brownback’s success in cutting welfare rolls is inarguable. But reducing the numbers of Kansans on public assistance isn’t the same as reducing poverty in Kansas, which means it’s premature for him to declare victory.
A critic of the nation’s 50-year War on Poverty, and especially its programs providing benefits without requiring employment, the Republican governor is sincere in his belief that his approach will be more effective. It looks impressive that only 15,000 Kansans are on the monthly average welfare rolls in 2015, compared with 39,000 in 2011.
“It’s work. It’s education. It’s family. Those are your big three pieces that you need to get moving in the right direction,” he told The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry.
But his policies don’t seem to have moved Kansas’ poverty numbers in the right direction.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 13.6 percent of Kansans were living below the poverty level last year, a slight dip from 2012-13 but the same as when Brownback was elected governor in 2010. Kansas Kids Count data shows 18 percent of Kansas children in poverty in both 2013 and 2010.
Some of the changes made by policy and legislation since 2011 also appear both punitive and prescriptive. Kansas now selectively tests welfare applicants for drug use, limits welfare benefits to 36 months, and requires some recipients of food assistance or welfare to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in job training.
Not surprisingly, 23.7 percent of Kansas families left the welfare program in 2013 for failing to comply with the requirements, compared with 9.6 percent who left because of new employment.
This year Kansas also earned national ridicule by barring welfare benefits from being spent in a colorful array of ways, including on cruises, fortune-tellers, tattoos and lingerie.
And Brownback wants to do more of what might appear to be meddling in the lives of the poor, by stepping up fathering initiatives and launching a mentoring program for them like one that has helped prison inmates after their release.
Of course, Brownback’s stated desire to “embrace the family” as a culture is understood not to include families headed by same-sex couples, who have been treated like second-class citizens by his administration. And even as he’s curbed welfare benefits he’s signed laws eliminating tax credits that had helped low-income Kansans and raising sales tax on everybody.
Maybe 50 years of handouts haven’t worked. But it’s fair to question whether the new strategy – equal parts hand up and slap down – truly will help Kansans either.