AP: Advocates: Cuts don't help state's poor

1/7/2013

Administration says policies force people to find jobs, not rely on handouts.

Administration says policies force people to find jobs, not rely on handouts.

TOPEKA (AP) — Advocates for the poorest Kansas residents say Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is making it tougher for the state's needy to rise out of poverty by cutting much-needed assistance.

Brownback administrators, however, insist that stricter policies on who receives state assistance are forcing people to find jobs instead of relying on handouts.

Ever since Brownback campaigned for governor in 2010, the conservative Republican has declared that lifting children out of poverty is a priority. But advocates for the poor argue that under Brownback's administration needy residents are being cast adrift and that the coming years will be even worse.

Making matters worse, those advocates say they're afraid to criticize policies they see as "mean," "heartless" and "vindictive" because of possible retribution from state agencies.

"Groups are pretty reticent to talk right now. There is a sense that retaliation is possible," said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, a Topeka-based advocacy group. "Everybody is concerned that we are shrinking the social safety net. So much of it is happening behind closed doors and under the radar."

Roughly 384,000 Kansans, or 13.8 percent of the state's population, live at or below the poverty line, which is $23,050 a year for a family of four. That number has risen by nearly 80,000 people since before the recession began in 2008. Of those, 34,000 were children, whose poverty rate has increased from 14.5 percent to nearly 19 percent.

Advocates point to Brownback's refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul, which could leave 120,000 to 140,000 low-income Kansans without insurance.

They also fret about the administration's decision to turn the delivery of Medicaid services over to three private health insurers in a system known as KanCare that started Jan. 1. Private insurers, advocates fear, will boost their bottom lines by refusing or restricting services to the 380,000 poor, disabled and elderly Kansans on Medicaid.

The state counters that KanCare will be more efficient, and that privatization will stem rapidly growing Medicaid spending and save Kansas close to $500 million over five years.

Sweeping Brownback-supported changes in May eliminated income taxes for an estimated 191,000 small businesses, but took away longstanding tax breaks for child- and dependent-care expenses and money spent on food taxes that helped a combined 430,000 Kansans.

Before that, another policy eliminated food stamps to the families of 2,200 Kansas children, all of whom are U.S. citizens, because some income in their homes came from family members who were in the country illegally.

Perhaps the most notable statistics involve Temporary Aid to Needy Families, also known as welfare.

TANF cash assistance averages about $280 a month and goes to those whose annual incomes are no greater than 28 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $6,500 a year for a family of four.

About 39,000 severely poor Kansans were receiving TANF when Brownback took office. After his administration instituted stricter rules, about 38 percent of those participants — or nearly 15,000 of them — were cut off.

"If you're qualifying for TANF, it's your only cash," said Sister Therese Bangert, an advocate for the poor with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. "It's minimal, but it helps people."

One of the most drastic TANF rules is one that took welfare payments away from the entire family if any child in the house was not attending school.

"I've never seen this approach work: cutting people off and hoping for the best," Kansas Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said. "More and more, it would appear that they will be on their own."

Brownback administrators say they are doing the opposite of abandoning the poor by promoting fatherhood and education, helping jobless Kansans find work and by promoting personal accountability over "handouts."

"Instead of setting poor people adrift, I would say we are helping them ashore," said Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Gilmore said statistics showing that more than 9,000 children have been dropped from the welfare rolls are positive numbers that do not reflect people being kicked to the curb. She said the declining numbers show the stricter policies are working.

Families who are no longer getting welfare don't need the money, she said.

"They are finding and getting jobs," Gilmore said.

The state's own numbers, however, point to a different reason the welfare rolls are shrinking: denial of benefits.

In October 2011, when the stricter TANF eligibility rules took effect, the monthly denial of benefits went from 66 percent to 74 percent, where it remains. By comparison, only about 35 percent of TANF applications in Missouri are denied each month.

Gilmore acknowledged that state officials do not have data to back up their claim that welfare recipients are finding jobs, but they feel it's a natural assumption. She said people are either finding jobs or they don't need the money bad enough to do what's required to receive it.

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