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Fact check: A closer look at poverty reduction claims

Presenter touts limits on social services to support marriage, reduce poverty

By Meg Wingerter | January 14, 2016

Fact check: A closer look at poverty reduction claims
Photo by Megan Hart/KHI News Service Tarren Bragdon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, recently told the governor’s Social Service Policy Council that government programs aimed at low-income people undermine marriage and keep people trapped in poverty. Bragdon suggested states should further limit the length of time that people can obtain social services.

The founder of a Florida-based think tank recently told the governor’s Social Service Policy Council that government programs aimed at low-income people undermine marriage and keep people trapped in poverty.

Tarren Bragdon, president and CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, shared findings of a study comparing incomes and employment for people who lost food stamp eligibility when Kansas incorporated a work requirement in 2013. The change required adults age 18 to 49 to find a job working at least 20 hours per week within 90 days or to enroll in a job training program in order to continue in the food stamp program.

Bragdon’s study found that average incomes increased by 127 percent for 14,000 Kansans who lost food stamp eligibility, and the percentage of those Kansans who weren’t in poverty increased from 7 percent to about 50 percent. The average annual income rose from $2,453 to $5,562, which still is less than half the federal poverty level of $11,770 for a single individual.

Brownback established the council last year through an executive order and tasked it with recommending ways to reduce the state’s poverty rate and improve its social services programs. Bragdon spoke to the council at its meeting in early January.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, said in an interview after Bragdon’s presentation that many Kansas families still need assistance due to low wages.

“In many cases, these are working families and they are hard-working families, they just aren’t able to make ends meet,” she said.

To encourage marriage, Bragdon suggested states should further limit the length of time that people can obtain social services.

“While they’re on welfare, they’re tainted to the concept of marriage,” he said. “When you end welfare dependency, people become independent, they become productive and, if you will, they become marriage material.”

Cotsoradis questioned the emphasis on encouraging marriage in Bragdon’s presentation.

“I think we can all agree that children deserve to grow up in a family that is emotionally and economically stable,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about marriage. I think it’s about emotional and economic stability.”

Gov. Sam Brownback seemed receptive to Bragdon’s presentation during the meeting, noting he thought anti-poverty programs had “wounded” places like Linn County, where he was raised. In his first term, Brownback listed childhood poverty among his administration’s five goals.

Here is a look at some of Bragdon’s statements during his presentation to the council compared with publicly available data:

  • Bragdon: A 71 percent “long-term reduction in childless adult enrollment” in food stamps after the changes.
    According to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, that number fell from 25,913 Kansas adults in 2013 to 7,403 Kansas adults in 2015.
  • Bragdon: A “2 percent increase in (the Kansas) marriage rate.”
    The number of Kansas marriages increased by 1.9 percent from 2013 to 2014. That was almost entirely due to population growth, however, because the marriage rate only increased from 6 percent in 2013 to 6.1 percent in 2014. In addition, both the number of marriages and the marriage rate in Kansas were lower than in the mid-1990s.
  • Bragdon: “Thirty-five percent of Americans live in households receiving benefits from one or more welfare programs.”
    This was correct in the fourth quarter of 2012 if the definition of welfare is broad. Bragdon’s foundation didn’t have more recent data. As of 2012, about 35.4 percent of Americans lived in a household where someone received benefits from programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, free or reduced-price school lunches, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), subsidized housing, cash assistance, energy assistance and some veterans’ pensions.
    The actual number of people benefiting from those programs isn’t clear, because one household can receive multiple types of assistance, and not everyone in the household may receive assistance. For example, free school lunches are only available to children, and WIC wouldn’t apply to an infant’s father or older children in the family.
    Medicaid was the most-used program, with 26.7 percent of the U.S. population living in a household where at least one member was enrolled. About 16.6 percent of people were in a household with someone who received food stamps, 7.3 percent with a WIC recipient and 6.6 percent with an SSI recipient. Other similar programs reached less than 5 percent of Americans.
  • Bragdon: “Medicaid enrollment has more than doubled since 2000.”
    This is true if you include the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2000, 32.7 million people were enrolled in Medicaid and 35.3 million were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP. In October 2015, 57.8 million people were enrolled in Medicaid and 71.8 million were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP.
    Some of the increase is due to population growth, as the number of Americans climbed more than 7 percent from 2000 to 2015 — from about 282 million to 321 million. About 12.5 percent of the U.S. population was enrolled in one of the two low-income health insurance programs in 2000, rising to 22.3 percent of Americans in October 2015.
    Also during that time, 31 states elected to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, increasing the number of adults eligible for the program and the participation rate. Kansas is among the states that haven’t expanded Medicaid eligibility since it became an option in 2014. The national economy also weathered two economic downturns.
  • Bragdon: “The number of Americans dependent on food stamps nearly tripled since 2000.”
    The numbers come close. About 17.2 million people received food stamps in 2000, and 45.8 million received them in 2015. It is worth noting, however, that the number of recipients had fallen from a peak of 47.6 million in 2013.
    Like Medicaid, some of the increase was due to population growth. The participation rate in food stamps climbed from about 6.1 percent of the population in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2015.
  • Bragdon: “Eighty-six percent of (U.S.) households on food stamps are also receiving other types of welfare.”
    As of December 2012, 16,577 U.S. households received food stamps and 2,367 U.S. households, or about 14 percent, didn’t receive any other benefits.
    About 21 percent of households receiving food stamps received Medicaid but no other benefits. About 3 percent received food stamps and free or reduced-price school lunches. About 18 percent received food stamps, Medicaid and free or reduced-price lunches. Another 8 percent received food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance. The statistics didn’t specify what the remaining households received.
  • Bragdon: “Individuals stay on food stamps for an average of eight-plus years.”
    For 2008-2012, the median length of time households continuously used food stamps was eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means half of households used food stamps longer and half used them for less time.
    The USDA noted some households have received benefits since the 1960s. New users had shorter lengths of time on the program, with 67 percent of households that started using food stamps between 2008 and 2012 exiting the program within two years.