KHI News Service

Conservatives fault audit on marriage disincentives

Report says welfare program rules not a significant barrier to marriage

By Mike Shields | September 27, 2011

Auditors for the Legislature today reported they had found little to show that Kansas welfare programs discourage marriage.

"We found little evidence that eligibility rules significantly influence clients’ decisions about whether to marry," auditors concluded. "For those policymakers who wish to promote marriage, changing the eligibility rules for benefits programs likely would have only a limited impact on clients’ marital decisions."

The findings drew quick rebuke from some conservative Republicans on the Legislature's Post-Audit Committee.

"I don't believe the audit really reflects the truth out there in society," said Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro.

"It has become a subjective report rather than an objective report," said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee.

"This isn't an audit that complies with the reputation of Post-Audit," said Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson.

The report also was faulted by Rob Siedlecki, head of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, the state welfare agency. In a letter included as an appendix to the report, he said auditors had interviewed too few SRS managers and clients before drawing their conclusions. And he said facts in the report supported his agency's recent initiative to change policies that discourage marriage.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, took office pledging to eliminate state policies that were disincentives to wedlock.


Audit: Identifying Disincentives for Marriage

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And auditors, in the preamble to their report, noted that part of the administration's interest in promoting marriage derived from a 2008 analysis by the Institute for American Values, which concluded that failed marriages and unwed childbirths were costing Kansas taxpayers $389 million a year in lost tax revenues or increased spending on welfare and criminal justice programs.

The top blurb on the introductory page of the institute's web site is an endorsement from Brownback saying he believes the organization's reports will have "a lasting effect on public policy debates in Washington, D.C., and in the state capitals."


Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing

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According to the organization's 2008 report, Kansas had 137,000 children living in poverty, and 62 percent of them were living in unmarried households.

The Post-Audit report didn't examine or refute those claims; it concluded there was little evidence to suggest that changing state welfare policies would improve the state's marriage rate.

Auditors pointed out that some welfare programs count income of every adult living in a household regardless if they are married, which means a wedding ring on the finger of a cohabitant does nothing to increase or decrease welfare benefits.

They also noted research suggesting that people who might lose welfare benefits because they were living together more likely would lie about their cohabitation rather than avoid marriage.

"Literature acknowledges that programs with income-based eligibility have built-in disincentives," the auditors wrote. "But there's no good information on whether they actually deter marriage."

The audit was defended by Democrats on the committee and by Rep. John Grange, the El Dorado Republican who chairs the committee.

"This is like most of our audits," he said. "If you don't like the results, you don't like the audit. If you like the results, it's a heck of an audit."