Poverty is a political issue in Kansas.
Gov. Sam Brownback campaigned in 2010 on a platform that included as one of its main goals reducing childhood poverty. And since taking office, he has aggressively pursued that goal. But he’s done it his way.
Rather than putting millions more dollars into traditional public assistance programs, he has instituted policies that effectively limited access to them and instead steered would-be beneficiaries into welfare-to-work programs. The key to reducing poverty, he said, was getting people off the assistance rolls and into the workforce.
A Brownback commercial airing for his re-election campaign claims the strategy is working. It says that “welfare has been cut in half” by the governor’s welfare-to-work program.
The claim refers to a reduction in the number of Kansans enrolled in the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, TANF enrollment has fallen by 54 percent over the past four years, dropping from 38,963 in the 2011 budget year to 17,681 in the 2014 budget year.
Similarly, the number of low-income parents – single mothers, mostly – receiving monthly child care subsidy payments has dropped by 27 percent during the same four-year period.
“We’re seeing individuals moving out of poverty through employment,” said Theresa Freed, a DCF spokesperson.
Reducing the number of Kansans receiving public assistance isn’t the same thing as reducing poverty, said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children. The recent KIDS COUNT report compiled by KAC shows that Kansas’ childhood poverty rate declined by 2 percent from 2012 to 2013. But other economic indicators showed more Kansas families struggling to make ends meet.
The percentage of Kansas children receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school is a good barometer, Cotsoradis said. In the 2010-2011 school year, about 47 percent of Kansas children qualified for free or subsidized lunches. Now, for the first time, more than 50 percent qualify.
“So here we have more kids relying on free and reduced school meals, and at the same time we’re seeing significant declines in the numbers of families that are accessing TANF and child care subsidies,” Cotsoradis said. “I don’t see how that’s good news. It means fewer poor people are receiving services that are meant to lift them out of poverty.”
Children are eligible for free school meals if they’re living in households with incomes below 130 percent of poverty and eligible for reduced-price meals if they’re in households with incomes between 131 percent and 185 percent of poverty.
Recently, the Brownback administration claimed in a DCF news release that its new welfare policies also had reduced poverty in the state.
Several days later the agency acknowledged it had made a mistake. The state’s poverty rate as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure remained essentially flat, inching up to 11.8 percent in 2013 from 11.5 percent the year before.
“Typically, when you’re look at a survey this size, anything under 1 percent is not statistically significant,” said Terri Friedline, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare who’s studied poverty statistics. “But that’s not to say it’s not meaningful, because three tenths of a percent is thousands of people.”
The Supplemental Poverty Measure uses a formula designed to calculate the effects that regional cost-of-living variances and state public assistance programs have on household incomes.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of DCF, said while the official numbers don’t yet show it, the administration’s policies are working to reduce poverty.
“Although we would like to see a dramatic decrease in poverty, we know that our efforts are effective,” Gilmore said in an email. “Every day, we hear from individuals who seek benefits and with the help of our employment services, they are finding jobs and achieving self-sufficiency.”
One doesn’t necessarily follow the other, said Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, a nonpartisan think tank formed as a counter to conservative groups that lobby for lower taxes and smaller government.
Many of the jobs being filled by former welfare recipients pay wages that keep them in poverty, McKay said. 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.”
Debbie Snapp, who runs the Catholic Social Service office in Dodge City, works with struggling families every day. She said most of those who need help have jobs.
“But they’re struggling because they’re working low-wage jobs, especially single moms,” Snapp said. “They’re still poor. They still can’t put enough food on the table. But instead of asking the state for help, they’re having to turn to charitable organizations like us.”
Jan Haberly oversees The Lord’s Diner, a Catholic Diocese of Wichita-sponsored program that each day prepares and serves 2,700 evening meals to the city’s homeless and low-income.
“All of our numbers are increasing,” she said. “We’ve been reaching out to more people, but even if we weren’t, our numbers are increasing. If there’s been a drop in poverty, we’re not reflecting it.”
Haberly said she’s long questioned the practice of using the federal poverty level to define whether someone is poor.
“You can be above 100 percent of poverty and still be poor,” she said. “So when there’s a report that says poverty is down, it may mean there aren’t as many people below 100 percent of poverty. But it doesn’t mean there are fewer poor people. We see all kinds of people – people and families – who are working but who are still poor.”