Report: Poor Families Struggling With Kansas Welfare Rules
Income that doesn’t come close to the poverty line. Persistent job insecurity. Shifting schedules and irregular hours. Cumbersome barriers to state assistance meant for the neediest Kansans.
A new report from the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities paints a stark picture of the Kansas welfare system.
Analysts focused on two major changes to the Kansas welfare eligibility rules enacted under Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration — work requirements and time limits.
They used the same data as the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability did in a 2017 study. Kansas and other states have been using that report to back work requirements and time limits.
That earlier FGA study, “Work Requirements are Working for Kansas Families,” found that Kansans thrived after leaving cash assistance. The study concluded that work requirements, sanctions and time limits implemented under Brownback led to higher incomes, more employment and less dependency on the state.
The CBPP report contends that FGA exaggerated post-welfare earnings and drew flawed conclusions about the power of the new Kansas policies to lift families from poverty.
“The data just don’t in any way support the claim that parents were thriving,” said LaDonna Pavetti, one of the authors for the think tank, which analyzes public assistance policies across the country. “Most families remained extremely poor.”
Brownback’s administration imposed stricter work requirements and shorter time limits to encourage self-reliance in recipients of state assistance. It argued that without those powerful incentives, many families would remain stuck in a trap of dependency and poverty.
The Department for Children and Families, which oversees Kansas’ welfare programs, cited work-training programs that help welfare recipients move from internships to full-time jobs. It said more than 21,000 people receiving state cash assistance have reported new employment since 2011.
“The facts are clear: work requirements in Kansas are helping more people succeed,” Brownback’s office said in a statement.
Kansas welfare rules give a pass on work requirements in some cases. For instance, a grandmother would be exempt if she was taking care of a granddaughter removed from her mother’s custody by the state. More than half of welfare recipients qualify because they’re taking care of family members. DCF also offers hardship extensions that let some families exceed the time limits.
The governor’s office described Wednesday’s report as “more of the same” from “a left-wing organization trying to advance a welfare-for-all narrative while ignoring the data.” Brownback spokesman Bob Murray cited a falling child poverty rate in Kansas. It dropped by almost a fourth in five years.
From October 2011 to March 2015, about 22,500 parents left cash assistance. Of those, roughly three in 10 left for failure to meet work requirements and about one in 10 left due to time limits.
The majority of families who lost assistance for not meeting work requirements had income below the federal poverty level. Nearly seven in 10 had earnings at half that level or less — or no earnings at all.
For a single mother of two, that would mean annual earnings of $10,210 or less. In fact, the median income for people leaving over work sanctions didn’t break $5,000 per year in any of the four years after exiting cash welfare.
For those who lost assistance when they bumped up against time limits, the change was more profound. Four years after reaching the 2012 time limit — then 48 months — the study found 60 percent of people who lost their benefits either had no earnings or made less than $5,105 for a family of three.
That 48-month lifetime limit on benefits has since dropped to 24 months.
Pavetti rejected the idea that work requirements will spur welfare recipients to get jobs.
“What the data actually show is that work is common,” she said. “It was common before people came on to [cash assistance] as well as after.”
People receiving cash assistance worked just as much before they got those benefits as they did after, the report said. For instance, 71 percent of the people who left assistance between 2011 and 2015 worked the year before receiving assistance, and 71 percent worked the year after.
Work, though, can often bring its own uncertainties, said Scott Anglemyer, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs. People who qualify for welfare are concentrated in low-wage jobs, which often mean volatile work schedules, no benefits, and a changing schedule over which they have little control.
“It’s very difficult to make ends meet,” Anglemyer said. Although poverty is going down in Kansas, he said, social service agencies have seen caseloads balloon in response to thinning government services.
Anglemyer and other advocates worry about where that might leave kids.
Kansas has seen a spike in the number of children entering foster care in recent years. Preliminary findings from a study out of the University of Kansas show a correlation between welfare restrictions and increasing foster care numbers, although DCF has said its own analysis doesn’t support a connection.
The CBPP’s findings are even more troubling in light of how they affect kids, said Amanda Gress, director of government relations at Kansas Action for Children. After all, she said, virtually all welfare recipients are taking care of children.
“Families who don’t have those essential cash resources might have their utilities shut off, they might face evictions and homelessness, they might skip doctor’s visits or go without essential medication,” Gress said.
Madeline Fox is a reporter or the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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