State wants to punish poor even more

With so many fewer Kansans on welfare, many fewer Kansans should be in poverty. They aren’t.
With so many fewer Kansans on welfare, many fewer Kansans should be in poverty. They aren’t.

It’s hard to say which is worse – state leaders’ animosity toward those on welfare, or their sanctimonious claims that it actually helps poor Kansans to make such assistance harder to get. And now they want to curb benefits further, and take the strategy nationwide.

Gov. Sam Brownback, responding to criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, said Thursday that federal welfare programs have failed and that Kansas’ welfare-to-work policies “provide independence and a proven route out of poverty.”

But do they? He pointed to “comprehensive” tracking (done by the conservative advocacy group Foundation for Government Accountability) showing that within one year of able-bodied adults leaving the food-stamp program as new rules took effect for 2014, their incomes rose by an average 127 percent. “This is success,” he said, expressing the hope that Congress will follow Kansas’ lead.

The administration also touts how the number of Kansans receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dropped from 40,000 in January 2011 to fewer than 13,000 in December 2015.

In a statement about having promoted Kansas’ welfare reforms to Ohio legislators, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer similarly drew a cause-and-effect relationship between Kansas’ work requirements and welfare recipients newly “making a living for themselves. These people can look at themselves and know they lifted themselves out of poverty.”

But the number of Kansans with incomes below the poverty level rose from 12.4 percent in 2010 to 13.8 percent in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The state’s latest move is Senate Bill 372, which would drop the lifetime cap on TANF benefits to 24 months (from the current 36 months). It passed the Senate last week on a 31-8 vote, after an extended debate led by Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, that variously portrayed welfare recipients as trapped in government dependency and out to take taxpayers for a ride. The bill now goes to the House.

“We are providing a pathway for Kansans that are poor to have their dignity,” argued Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson.

A sequel to last year’s law that drew national ridicule for barring welfare dollars from being spent for tattoos and fortune tellers and the like, the bill newly targets for scrutiny any welfare recipient lucky enough to win a lottery jackpot of more than $5,000 – a threshold lowered from $10,000 on the Senate floor. It also tightens work requirements, anti-fraud rules and other eligibility for not only TANF cash assistance but also food stamps and child care subsidies. The Department for Children and Families estimates the 24-month cutoff could affect 420 Kansas households.

But “it does not address the causes of poverty, it does not help people get out of poverty, and it presumes the bad intentions of people in need,” as Rabbi Moti Rieber recently said in legislative testimony, according to the Kansas Health Institute News Service.

And as Sister Therese Bangert of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth told legislators: “What I do find troubling is what I judge as a lack of respect for the struggles of persons living in poverty.”

With so many fewer Kansans on welfare, many fewer Kansans should be in poverty. They aren’t. The least the promoters of Senate Bill 372 could do is drop the pretense that such legislation isn’t punitive.