State officials on Monday encouraged a task force charged with finding ways to reduce childhood poverty to endorse a plan for making working, low-income parents pay more for government-subsidized child care.
Increasing the co-pays, they said, would encourage parents – single mothers, mostly – to work longer hours and pursue workplace promotions rather than becoming dependent on public assistance.
“Encouraging full-time employment will reduce poverty,” said Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore, who also chairs the Governor’s Task Force on Reducing Childhood Poverty.
Gilmore did not indicate how much she thought the co-pays should be increased.
Child care subsidies currently are available to parents on public assistance whose incomes are below 180 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $2,900 a month for a single mother with two children.
Food stamp work requirement discussed
DCF officials also proposed requiring adult food-stamp recipients to be either employed, looking for work, or participating in a job training program. Children, frail elders and the disabled would be exempt from the requirement.
Currently, DCF offers food-stamp recipients in eight counties — Atchison, Brown, Douglas, Geary, Osage, Pottawatomie, Riley and Shawnee — help in finding a job or job training. Participation is voluntary; the proposal would make it mandatory and statewide.
Those who fail to comply with the requirement could be dropped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) for one, three or six months. Chronic non-compliance could result in permanent disqualification.
Michelle Schroeder, public policy director at DCF, defended the proposals, citing research that she said showed that public assistance programs have done little to reduce the numbers of people living in poverty, and that low-income families are "better off" when parents are married, have a high school degree and work full-time.
Wherever possible, DCF policies, she said, should promote work and responsible decision-making over dependence on government-funded programs.
"Obviously, it's very difficult to obtain self-sufficiency without at least one (adult) in the household having full-time work," Schroeder said.
Late last year, Gov. Sam Brownback asked the 12-member task force to develop recommendations for reducing childhood poverty. The request was in keeping with his “Road Map for Kansas” campaign, which includes calls for increasing personal income and jobs, improving fourth grade reading scores and lowering the percentage of children living in poverty.
The task force is expected to forward its report to the Governor’s Office within a few weeks. The meeting Monday was the group’s fourth and final session.
Much of the discussion was inconclusive. Several times, members of the task force agreed on the importance of promoting work, education and healthy marriages, but shied away from proposing substantive changes in policy.
The group neither endorsed not rejected DCF’s call for increasing child care co-pays and for adding a “work requirement” to food stamp eligibility criteria.
“This is a controversial subject,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore also told the task force members that she and her staff had been questioning government’s role in helping low-income adults go to college, noting that some students were quick to take the money but slow in going to class.
But task force members Mary Wilkenson, a retired nurse from Wichita who is active in a faith-based program for young mothers, and Robert DeLeon, who runs the Salvation Army Community Center in Garden City, each said they knew single women who weren’t abusing their assistance and whose best chance for achieving self-sufficiency was earning a degree.
"In the real world," Wilkenson said, it would be unrealistic to expect many single mothers to better themselves without public assistance given that they might be working one or two low-wage jobs, caring for small children and struggling to find time to study.
But task force member Joyce Crumton, a retired nurse from Kansas City, said single mothers needed to realize that the cost of public assistance programs were "unsustainable" and that government was not responsible for rectifying their poor choices.
“She might have to postpone her education,” Crumpton said, referring to Wilkenson’s example.
Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, cautioned against policy changes that would lead to fewer people receiving public assistance but without reducing the numbers of those living in poverty.
It doesn’t do much good, Feaker said, to encourage the poor to get jobs when those jobs aren’t available.
“Here in Shawnee County,” he said, “there simply aren’t enough living wage jobs.”
The prospects of a new Mars Chocolate plant adding 300 jobs to the Topeka economy, Feaker said, was “a drop in the bucket.”
He also questioned changing the state’s food-stamp policies.
“All I know is that the people we’re seeing aren’t getting as much as they did before,” he said, adding “At the same time, our Food Basket program last year (distributed more staples) than the previous four years combined.”
The task force agreed to endorse school-based programs that promote literacy, job training, healthy relationships and personal responsibility. It also expressed support for issuing free marriage licenses for couples that complete an eight-hour course on healthy marriages.
April Holman, director of policy and research with the advocacy group, Kansas Action for Children, listened to much of the five-hour discussion.
“Some what I heard today was really concerning in terms of how children and families will fare under some of the changes they’re talking about and whether those changes will reduce childhood poverty or end up exacerbating the problems,” she said.
Theresa Freed, a DCF spokesperson, said the department would prepare a list of recommendations discussed during the meeting. Then task force members would be asked to decide which ones to include in the panel’s final report.
“Childhood poverty is a major concern for all of us and, certainly, for the governor,” Gilmore said. “I couldn’t count the number of times he’s asked when our recommendations will be ready.”
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