by MEGAN HART
The legislative battle may be over, but the war of words continues about a bill that imposes new restrictions on Kansas welfare recipients.
Gov. Sam Brownback signed Senate Bill 402 on Monday at the Statehouse flanked by legislative supporters of the measure.
The new law lowers the lifetime limit for those receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) program from three years to two years, with the possibility of a one-year hardship extension. It also tightens work requirements and penalties for not cooperating with fraud investigations.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families projects about 420 of the approximately 4,900 families on TANF will hit the 24-month limit in January.
Brownback said the measure, which supporters refer to as the HOPE Act 2.0, and restrictions imposed in a similarly titled bill passed last year will help motivate Kansans to get off welfare and find a job. He said people needed “hard deadlines” to accomplish goals such as finding a job or completing a term paper.
“It’s helped people get out of poverty, it’s helped people have more income and it’s helped people get back their dignity,” he said.
But critics say the restrictions are forcing people who need assistance deeper into poverty.
“The so-called HOPE Act hurts the poorest families in Kansas,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, outgoing president of Kansas Action for Children. “Cutting off critical lifelines to Kansas’ most economically fragile children merely perpetuates the cycle of poverty that the governor claims to be committed to reducing.”
Legislative critics say the restrictions are politically motivated, a charge buttressed by the release earlier this year of a memo written by Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, and distributed to some Kansas GOP lawmakers. Among other things, the memo advised Senate Republicans seeking re-election that there was “popular support” for tighter welfare rules.
Both sides in the welfare debate claim to have data to support their positions.
A study touted by Brownback by the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability found that incomes had increased an average of 127 percent for the roughly 14,000 Kansas adults who were dropped from the food stamp program by eligibility changes enacted in 2013.
But that claim was undermined by data included elsewhere in the report that showed their average income was still less than half of the federal poverty level, which in 2016 is $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four.
About 79 percent of those the study followed were still in poverty a year after leaving the food stamp program. A significant percentage of those who found jobs also reported they still had incomes below the poverty line.
Critics of the welfare restrictions point to the fact that the number of Kansas families enrolled in TANF has dropped precipitously in the last 10 years.
In 2005, an average of 17,118 Kansas families with 30,321 children received TANF benefits each month. So far in 2016, the monthly average is far lower at 5,506 families and 9,630 children.
However, it isn’t clear how many left TANF because they obtained employment. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported about 41 percent of TANF cases that were closed in Kansas listed the reason as “employment.” In 2014, the most recent year with data available, only about 9 percent of closed TANF cases cited employment.
Federal data shows that Kansas families who left TANF in 2014 had an average income of $13,284, which would be below the poverty line for a family of two or more.
Kansas has enacted the following restrictions on public assistance in recent years:
2011: Lowered the lifetime limit for TANF from five years to four years.
2013: Required adults who don’t have a disability or a dependent child to work at least 20 hours per week or lose food assistance.
2015: Lowered the lifetime limit for TANF to three years.
2016: Lowered the lifetime limit for TANF to two years.
Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC