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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Brownback says welfare reform aims to break ‘cycles of dependency’

But anti-poverty program leaders predict additional challenges for low-income Kansans under new law

By Dave Ranney | April 16, 2015

Brownback says welfare reform aims to break ‘cycles of dependency’
Photo by Dave Ranney Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore looks on as Gov. Sam Brownback discusses a welfare reform measure that will take effect July 1.

Listen to the Kansas Public Radio story: Kansas governor signs controversial welfare bill into law

Approximately 350 low-income families will be dropped from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program after a new welfare reform measure takes effect July 1, state officials said Thursday.

The measure, signed into law Thursday by Gov. Sam Brownback, lowers families’ lifetime eligibility for TANF from 48 months to 36.

Families that have reached or exceeded the 36-month threshold when the law takes effect will be cut from the program. They will remain eligible for food stamps but will lose their cash assistance.

“This means people are going to have to find someplace else to make up for the resources they’ll be losing, things like rent and utilities,” said Richard Jackson, executive director at the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation, a nine-county anti-poverty program based in Ottawa.

“We’ll help them all that we can, but our resources are limited — just like they’re limited in every community across the state,” Jackson said. “By no stretch of the imagination can programs like ours be expected to make up for what’s being lost here.”

Jackson called the new law “mean-spirited.”

Brownback and Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore disagreed. The new law, they said, is meant to encourage families to wean themselves from government welfare programs.

“The goal is to end families’ dependence on government,” Gilmore said, adding that she thought it was “insulting” for critics of the new law to imply that families on TANF could not be “empowered to take control of their lives by encouraging work.”

Brownback said that welfare programs “fail the poor by keeping them in cycles of dependency.”

A sampling of the provisions in Senate Substitute for House Bill 2258:

  • TANF recipients are prohibited from spending their cash assistance on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography, lingerie, tattoos, body piercings, fortune-telling sessions or cruises.
  • ATM withdrawals from cash assistance accounts are limited to $25 a day.
  • While on TANF, able-bodied parents are required to work at least 20 hours a week, apply for jobs or participate in job-training programs. Those who don’t will be dropped from the program.
  • Adults who fail to meet the work requirements will lose both their TANF eligibility and their food stamps. 
  • Adults who are found to have committed welfare fraud will be banned from TANF for the rest of their lives.
  • Adults convicted of two drug felonies will be permanently ineligible for food stamps.
  • New mothers are expected to return to work three months after their babies are born.

Gilmore said that while denying food stamps for someone who’s addicted to drugs “may seem harsh to some,” she was confident that “felons can work, they can get jobs; there are other ways to get food.”

DCF, she said, will monitor the effects of the $25-a-day limit on cash assistance withdrawal and, if warranted, propose changes in the law before next year’s legislative session.  

Advocates for the poor have said the limit will interfere with some families’ abilities to pay their rent and utilities, which many pay in cash or with money orders purchased with cash withdrawn from their assistance accounts.

“This creates an additional barrier for low-income families that are already trying to balance lives on a very limited amount of money,” said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director at United Community Services of Johnson County. “It’s just going to make already difficult lives that much more difficult.”

According to DCF reports, the average per-person cash assistance benefit is $114 per month and the average food stamp benefit is $113 per month.

Brownback said the primary objective of the law is to get people off welfare and into “well-paying jobs” or job training. He said Kansas families shouldn’t rely on the “pittance” they can get from the government.

When Brownback took office, Gilmore said, state programs that help welfare recipients get jobs were languishing.

“It was minimal,” she said. “It had not had focus. But we just built it up with our staff.”

“A person has the right to refuse to work, but the taxpayer also has a right to not support that person.”

- Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore

Last year, Gilmore said, the revitalized program helped approximately 6,000 welfare recipients get jobs.

Gilmore said the work requirements in the law will serve to motivate Kansans receiving assistance to become self-sufficient.

“A person has the right to refuse to work, but the taxpayer also has a right to not support that person,” she said. “We have an obligation to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. And these are policies that help everyone win.”

Other states, Gilmore said, are likely to follow Kansas’ lead.

“(This) bill represents the most comprehensive welfare reform legislation passed by any state,” she said. “We encourage other states to look to Kansas on how to help end government dependency.”