Kansas Welfare Changes Fall Off Radar In Election Season
For Ashlyn Harcrow, the sound of the train whistle brings up all kinds of thoughts she’d like to avoid. Harcrow, 24, has been living at the Topeka Rescue Mission since July.
The nonprofit homeless shelter has helped her stabilize as she recovers from domestic violence and tries to improve her mental health amid post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
But the mission, at 600 N. Kansas Ave., is right next to the tracks. As trains rumble through north Topeka, they remind Harcrow that she’s thought about using those tracks to take her own life. “All these trains that go by here,” she said, “it don’t help.”
Harcrow would like to leave the mission and get her own place. But it’s a financial impossibility until she gets her mental health on track so she can return to the workforce.
She recently signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is commonly called food stamps. But she doesn’t qualify for any cash assistance that could help pay rent on an apartment or transportation to make sure she gets to her appointments at Valeo Behavioral Health Care.
“Since I don’t have any children or anything, I can’t get cash,” Harcrow said.
In Kansas, qualifying for welfare is hard — and it’s getting harder.
The state has no cash assistance program of its own, and the Legislature passed new restrictions on a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, for the second year in a row.
The new restrictions include stricter lifetime limits on benefits that will cause hundreds of families to lose their assistance on Jan. 1, 2017.
Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative Republicans in the Legislature who approved the law said it’s part of a larger strategy to move government away from cash assistance and toward employment help — with the governor frequently saying the best form of welfare is a good-paying job.
In a memo to fellow Republicans sent in February, Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce called tightening welfare restrictions a political winner for the party. But Bruce was ousted in the August primary election that saw a number of conservatives fall to more moderate challengers, and neither party has made anti-poverty programs much of an issue in general election campaigns.
The political discussion has shifted from the individual budgets of struggling Kansans to the state’s ongoing budget crisis.
Welfare rolls fall
When Brownback took office in January 2011, almost 39,000 Kansans received TANF, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which administers the program.
By September 2016, that number had fallen nearly 70 percent, to about 12,000: 3,000 adults and 9,000 children who represent about 0.4 percent of the state’s population. The average TANF benefit for each family is about $260 a month.
Brownback’s administration has spearheaded a number of TANF restrictions that he said are aimed at breaking “cycles of dependency” on government programs and encouraging work instead.
That includes rolling back the lifetime limits, from 48 months to 36 months in 2016 and from 36 months to 24 months in 2017.
Last year’s bill resulted in about 200 families losing their cash assistance on Jan. 1, 2016. DCF estimates as many as 424 families, including 763 children, will lose their benefits when the new limits start in January 2017.
Barry Feaker, the executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, said it’s a relatively small number compared to the state’s total population, but for those families, losing TANF could hinder their ability to climb out of poverty.
“There have been individuals who have really seen that as an opportunity to use it to be able to move up, absolutely,” Feaker said. “Equally we’ve had people who don’t know how to move up, that’s the bigger concern.”
Feaker has been fighting poverty and studying its causes for 30 years as the leader of the rescue mission.
He said a growing body of evidence suggests that generational poverty has a biological component — that children who spend their earliest years in families stressed by poverty suffer setbacks in brain development that affect them the rest of their lives. That’s why the rescue mission is building a $12 million “Children’s Palace” to provide day care for homeless kids age 5 and under.
Feaker said the rescue mission encourages poor families to use TANF as a short-term “insurance policy” to alleviate some of their stress during tough financial times.
He said from that standpoint, the state’s time limits make sense, but only when coupled with robust transitional programs to help get people into the workforce. Otherwise, he said, just kicking families off the rolls is a gamble.
“If you’ve never had a successful employment situation in your life … what’s going to change that?” Feaker said.
Brownback administration officials say their TANF job programs are working, citing 40,000 employments since 2011. Supporters call the programs the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone, or HOPE, Act.
Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for DCF, provided several examples of former TANF clients who transitioned to the workforce and signed waivers allowing the agency to discuss their cases. They included:
- Donald Hoadley, a 30-year-old Topeka man who got a part-time job at a car wash paying $8.50 an hour and was soon getting full-time hours by making himself available to fill in for co-workers who didn’t show. According to DCF, in less than a month, Hoadley’s employer had moved him into a managerial position at a different location that would include a raise after he finished his training. DCF reported providing Hoadley with job training and transportation.
- Duane Greathouse, a 43-year-old Newton man who in March got a full-time job at a truck stop paying $9 per hour. Agency officials reported helping Greathouse with transportation and his resume and working with several charities to get Greathouse clothing, a bicycle and a bicycle lock.
- Charisa Ullrich, a 38-year-old Pittsburg woman who got a full-time job at a plastics manufacturer that pays $9.50 per hour. DCF reported that Ullrich participated in the agency’s Generating Opportunities to Attain Lifelong Success, or GOALS, program and agency staff helped her get clothing and steel-toe boots for the job.
GOALS is available to Kansans who receive food assistance, a far larger group than those who qualify for TANF. It provides career counseling, plus help with transportation and child care.
KHI News Service was unable to reach the three former TANF clients for comment on the GOALS program.
DCF also has established a mentoring program to help Kansans transition from TANF that is modeled on a program to help inmates leaving state prisons.
“The Kansas HOPE Act is the most comprehensive welfare reform in the nation,” DCF secretary Phyllis Gilmore said in a June 30 news release. “Our solution is not as quick as handing someone cash, but our answer to poverty is much more effective. We are breaking the cycle of poverty through employment. It’s good for our clients and it’s good for Kansas taxpayers, who continue to overwhelmingly support welfare-to-work policies.”
But a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Kansas is among a number of states that diverted most of their TANF dollars to purposes other than basic assistance or employment help.
TANF is a federally funded program administered by the states. States must provide some matching funds — known as “maintenance of effort” — to continue receiving the federal dollars.
The state has used TANF dollars for a variety of programs, but the biggest chunk — almost 30 percent in 2015 — went to the state’s earned income tax credit — a refundable credit that low-income workers can claim on their income tax returns. All of that 30 percent came from the state’s matching funds.