Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday that he intends to sign a controversial welfare bill despite concerns from those who work with poor Kansans about whether the restrictions it imposes are realistic or enforceable.
The governor will sign the bill at a Thursday morning media event featuring former welfare recipients who obtained jobs with help from a state training program.
Kansans who do “street level” work with the poor are troubled by the restrictions in Senate Substitute for House Bill 2258. Those wary of it include Barry Feaker, the director of the Topeka Rescue Mission and a member of Brownback’s task force charged with reducing childhood poverty.
“The bill, as I understand it, raises a number of concerns,” Feaker said.
“One of those concerns would be: How would someone whose rent is $400 a month pay that rent if it has to be in cash and they’re only able to withdraw $25 a day? How would they be able to do that if the rent is due on the fifth and the cash assistance benefit isn’t loaded into the system until about that time?”
Many of the 6,200 families on the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, he said, do not have checking accounts.
“This looks very problematic to me,” he said.
Another section in the bill would prohibit TANF recipients from spending their cash assistance on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography, lingerie, tattoos, body piercings, fortune-telling sessions or cruises.
“I’m in agreement with that,” Feaker said. “People with limited resources shouldn’t be using those resources to gamble or buy alcohol. But how are we going to enforce that prohibition? Again, that concerns me as well.”
Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said that after someone withdraws money from their cash assistance accounts, subsequent transactions would be “very difficult to track.”
DCF, Freed said, is assuming that TANF recipients will work around the ATM limitation by using the “cash-back” option when making food purchases at grocery stores.
Freed said the $25-a-day restriction applies only to ATM transactions.
While the list of new restrictions on how welfare dollars can be spent is long, it does not include any prohibitions on guns or ammunition. Freed told the Wichita Eagle that families on TANF might need firearms to protect themselves in dangerous neighborhoods or hunt for food.
Vickie Judy, 40, of Topeka, and her three children, ages 9 to 18, receive $359 in cash assistance and $580 in SNAP benefits each month.
“I wouldn’t care if they tell me I can’t take out more than $25 a day, just as long as there’s a way I can use my (debit) card to pay rent and utilities,” Judy said earlier this week as she and a friend picked through boxes of oranges, apples and lettuce left over from a recent food giveaway in the Kansas Expocentre parking lot.
“If I don’t pay the rent by the fifth (day of the month), my landlord gets mad,” she said. “I’ll get evicted by the eighth. It’s happened before.”
Judy, a longtime nursing home worker who went on TANF after losing her job and separating from her husband, admitted that she had used her cash assistance to buy non-essential items for her children.
“When you’re poor and you see how it is that rich people live, you’ll go crazy if you don’t buy things for your kids once in a while,” she said. “I’ve done it, but not very often. Because if you want to know the truth, after you pay rent and utilities the money isn’t there. And whatever is there, you need to be spending on food. Your food stamps won’t get you to the end of the month.”
Cutting a wide swath
Miriam Krehbiel, chief executive with United Way of Greater Topeka, said she and others who work with “street level programs” could have alerted lawmakers to some practical problems with the bill.
“When I first heard about this I wanted to say, ‘No! Stop! Wait! You need to talk with some of the experts, the people who are dealing with these folks every day,’” Krehbiel said. “If they did, I think they’d see how reckless it is for them to be cutting such a wide swath when they ought to be using a scalpel.”
Support for the bill, Krehbiel said, appears to be driven by often-repeated stories of people on welfare mismanaging their money.
“I hear those stories too. I get it,” she said. “People on public assistance shouldn’t be spending what little money they have on things like cruises. But what I don’t get is how we think that someone on public assistance – as little as it is – would ever be able to save up enough money to be on a cruise ship?”
Earlier this month legislators approved the bill by votes of 30-10 in the Senate and 87-35 in the House.
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Republican from Wichita, carried the bill to the floor. He and other supporters said the bill would prevent fraud and help recipients move off welfare and into the workforce.
“We’re trying to make sure these benefits are used the way they were intended to be,” O’Donnell said.
In Kansas, a three-person family — a single mother and two children, typically — is eligible for cash assistance if the household’s gross income is below 26 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $435 a month. Those living in urban areas are eligible for more than those in rural areas.
Last week, DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore defended the law on the agency’s Facebook page, saying its provisions were designed to protect taxpayer dollars and encourage personal responsibility.
“This administration,” she wrote, “is helping people by walking alongside them to give them the skills and support they need to find and keep good-paying jobs so they no longer need to count on welfare benefits to pay their bills.”
The department’s welfare-to-work policies, she said, have “helped drastically reduce welfare rolls and resulted in more than 6,000 Kansans obtaining employment — just within the last year.”
According to DCF reports, in February, 14,749 Kansans — 3,906 adults, 10,843 children — received cash assistance. The average per-person payment was $114.
The reports also show that between July 2014 and February 2015, 81 adults — 2 percent of the total — lost their cash assistance due to fraud.
“I’d like to see the data that shows how many of these people are spending oodles of money on cruises and the like, because I don’t see it,” said Joyce Stockham, who runs the Mid-Kansas Community Action Program, an 18-county anti-poverty program headquartered in Augusta. “What I see is people using their TANF to pay rent and utilities and not having anything left over.”
In 2013, KansasWatchdog.org, a conservative online news organization, found that TANF beneficiaries had used their state-issued debit cards to withdraw more than $43,000 over a three-month period from ATMs in or near a casino, a strip club, an adult video store, payday loan shops, liquor stores and smoke shops.
The report, based on information obtained through an open records request filed with what was then called the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, did not indicate the number of cardholders who lived within walking distance of the ATMs or worked in the stores that house them versus those who spent the money at the establishments.
The $43,000 represented less 3 percent of the total TANF money withdrawn from ATMs in that three-month period and less than two-tenths of 1 percent of all TANF monies spent in the previous year.
Policy by anecdote?
Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director at the United Community Services of Johnson County, shared Stockham’s concern.
“This appears to be policy-by-anecdote rather than policy-by-evidence,” she said, referring to the bill. “I don’t see anything here that’s evidence-based that’s going to help anyone become self-sufficient.”
Currently, adults in eligible families are allowed to be on TANF for a total of 48 months during their lifetimes unless their circumstances meet the criteria for being considered a hardship case. The criteria: They become disabled, they’ve fled a violent relationship or they are in the process of retrieving their children from the state’s foster care system.
The new law reduces the lifetime limit to 36 months but allows up to another 12 in hardship cases.
Krehbiel and others who work with poor Kansans say that while 36 months may seem like a reasonable limit, it isn’t that much time when you consider that people are in and out of the workforce for 40 years or more.
“There is a lot of opportunity for a lot of things to go wrong, especially when the economy goes up and down like it has the last few years” Krehbiel said. “The question is not how long it takes someone to go out and find a job, it’s how long is it going to take for them to find life-sustaining employment for their families. I’m afraid that for a lot of these families, 36 months isn’t going to be long enough.”
Many of the jobs being filled by former welfare recipients pay wages that keep them in poverty, according to Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. She said more than 25 percent of working Kansans need some kind of help to pay for food, utilities, transportation and child care.
“If we continue to funnel Kansans into low-wage jobs, it’s not going to help them get ahead,” McKay said. “It’s not a path to prosperity, it’s a detour to poverty.”
The bill also penalizes parents who don’t meet the TANF programs’ work requirements by cutting off other benefits such as food stamps and child care assistance. Historically, eligibility for each of the three programs has been independent of each other.
Children of adults who lose their benefits continue to be eligible for food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“We’re losing sight of the big picture here,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive with the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children. “In our desire to penalize the adults for what are perceived as poor choices or negative behaviors, we’re going to be penalizing large numbers of very poor children because their parents won’t have access to cash assistance and there will be less food in the house.”
Dave Ranney is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.