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New welfare restrictions questioned

Advocates for children and the poor predict unintended consequences

By Dave Ranney | November 14, 2011

The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services has begun suspending welfare benefits for parents who fail to take part in work-preparation programs or fail to meet other new agency requirements.

As of Nov. 1, according to agency officials, parents who “fail to participate without good cause” in work training sessions will lose their family’s cash and child-care assistance for three months.

The training involves attending classes, discussion groups and work-site programs intended to help parents land jobs.

Also, parents – young, single mothers, mostly – will face similar penalties if they won't identify a child’s non-custodial parent or help SRS file a child-support order with the court.

“They have to help with the paternity establishments so the father can pay his child support and get involved in the kids’ lives,” said SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki. “And if they don’t want to comply with the work requirements, we’re going to subject them to penalties. We want to get people into work, get back their dignity, get back their respect through work.”

Parents who don't comply with the new rules also will have their food stamps suspended, though food stamps will continue to be provided for children in the household. Federal law prevents the state from cutting off the nutrition assistance to the children.

Siedlecki compared welfare benefits to an addictive drug and said the new sanctions ultimately are meant to benefit families by helping adults get off the rolls.

“If people don’t want to help themselves, they’re hurting their families even more,” he said. “If mom or dad is not working because they have a substance-abuse, or a mental-health, or a behavioral problem, we want to give them the wrap-around service to get them out there (in the workforce).

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“We want (families) to be successful,” Siedlecki said. “I don’t want them on the welfare rolls. It’s like a narcotic, if they keep on taking the program without trying to help themselves. We will give them the child-care services. We will give them the educational help and work help they need. We just need them to partner with us.”

The new penalties, which did not require or receive legislative approval, were outlined in a one-page sheet (PDF) distributed at local SRS offices earlier this month.

After an initial suspension of benefits, second and third failures to comply with the new rules will result in six- and 12-month suspensions, respectively.

Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for SRS, said the penalties were expected to affect between 15 percent and 20 percent of the department’s cash-assistance caseload.

Last month, almost 14,300 families – 12,200 adults and 26,300 children – received cash assistance. Most of those families also received food stamps.

But some critics of the new rules said the penalties were ill-conceived and flew in the face of Gov. Sam Brownback’s pledge to reduce the number of Kansas children living in poverty.

“The vast majority of the people we’re talking about here want to work,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of Kansas Action for Children, a Topeka-based children's advocacy group. “They would much rather be working than having to deal with SRS. So, if someone is not cooperating the question is why and the answer is not to go in and cut them off. I don’t see how anyone can say we’re going to suspend a parent’s food stamps or cash assistance for three months and not impact that parent’s children.”

Mary Lou Jaramillo, chief executive of El Centro Inc., an anti-poverty program in Kansas City, Kan., said SRS officials were “out of touch” with low-income families.

“I wish I could get through to them that these are families that are living on the edge of crisis every day,” Jaramillo said. “It’s not easy for (parents) to follow all the rules and meet all the deadlines because they have so many issues going on in their lives. If the decision makers at SRS think this is the way to motivate them, they are mistaken.”

In Kansas, a three-person family – a mother and two children, typically – is eligible for cash assistance if it’s living on less than $429 a month.

With cash assistance, a three-person family receives the difference between whatever they’re earning and $429 a month. For example, if a young mother is employed part-time and earns $200 a month, she and her two children are eligible for $229 in cash assistance.

“It’s ridiculous,” Jaramillo said. “What kind of place is a family of three going to find to rent for $429 a month? And that’s just rent, how are they going to pay the utilities? Everybody thinks there’s (publicly subsidized) housing for these families, but I can tell you that in Kansas City there are so many people on the waiting list that it’s closed. You can’t put your name on the list because it’s too long already. It’s not an option.”

The average, per-family cash assistance payment in Kansas is about $290 a month, according to SRS reports.

Most parents receiving cash assistance are unemployed, recently disabled or both. These families also are eligible for Medicaid, the government health program for the poor.

Families living at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level - roughly $2,000 a month for a family of three – are eligible for up to $526 in food stamps a month.

Under the new rules when a parent in a two-child family fails to participate in an SRS-sponsored work activity or otherwise fails to comply, the family’s food-stamp benefit drops from about $525 a month to about $365 a month.

Jodi Hitchcock, social services manager at the Johnson County Human Services Department office in De Soto, said the main reason people failed to participate in the work training was lack of transportation.

“Either they don’t have a car or they don’t have reliable transportation or they don’t have access to public transportation,” Hitchcock said. “In Johnson County, for example, public transportation is virtually non-existent and in the outlying, less-urban areas there’s none. So just getting to the SRS office on a two- and three-times-a-week basis can be a major obstacle.”

The second most common reason, she said, was illness.

"People don’t have reliable transportation or they don’t have insurance so they keep putting off going to the (safety-net) clinic until it’s an absolute emergency," Hitchcock said. "By then, the clinic can’t get them in right away so they go to the emergency room. These are lives that are in a state of constant flux.”

Many parents on cash assistance have diabetes, high blood pressure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, she said.

Prior to Nov. 1, a parent who wasn’t meeting the requirements would have been warned that their family could lose their cash assistance or see their food stamps reduced. Those who balked were penalized, those who complied were not.

A family’s benefits were restored when the parent corrected his or her behaviors.

That’s no longer the case. Now, a family is expected to wait three months before its benefits are restored.

“The penalties have always been there,” said Steve Lohr, executive director at the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program, a 12-county, anti-poverty program based in Girard. “What’s different now is the enforcement. There used to be some flexibility. Now things are pretty hard and fast.

“Is that a good thing? It depends on who you ask,” Lohr said. “I have (employees) who say that without something like this some people just aren’t going to change. There needs to be some tightening up.

“But at the same time, no matter how you penalize the parent you’re going to hurt the child,” he said. “That’s just a fact and it’s a constant challenge.”

Whether the tighter restrictions ultimately will help Kansas families, as SRS officials claim, remains to be seen.

Joan Alker, co-executive director at Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said she doubted they would.

“The assumption that these kinds of penalties work - in the best of times - is questionable,” Alker said. “So in the worst of times – a time of very high unemployment – this clearly seems to be the wrong solution.”

Alker studied the results of a similar reform initiative in 2006 in West Virginia. It limited Medicaid benefits for families with parents that did not promise to adopt healthy lifestyles.

“By far the largest group affected was the children,” Alker said, “which makes sense because they’re the largest group in Medicaid. So the question became why would you limit benefits for children because of the choices of their parents? The same question, I think, would apply in Kansas.”


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