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Poverty task force chair says she’ll resist tightening aid to poor

By Dave Ranney | March 04, 2013

Gov. Sam Brownback at the second meeting of the Governor's Task Force on Reducing Childhood Poverty.

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The chair of the Governor's Task Force on Reducing Childhood Poverty said today that she would resist calls for punishing welfare recipients who say they cannot find work or who refuse to accept low paying jobs.

“It is not my intention to go in that direction,” said Phyllis Gilmore, also secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

“The task force may not agree with me and they may overrule me, but at this point imposing greater sanctions is not on my mind,” Gilmore told KHI News Service.

Gilmore’s comments followed a presentation to the task force by Larry Temple, executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission.

Temple said in 2003, Texas enacted policies that cut off Medicaid services to adult welfare recipients’ — young single mothers, mostly — if they did not participate in job training and accept whatever jobs were offered to them.

In a matter of months, he said the number of welfare recipients who’d refused employment fell by 80 percent.

According to the Kansas Department of Commerce, Temple said, there are Kansas employers ready and willing to hire thousands of low-skill workers with less than an associate-degree level of education.

Most of the jobs, he said, were in food preparation, waitressing, landscaping, running a cash register, or caring for the elderly.

Though most of the jobs do not pay enough to offset a typical welfare recipient’s expenses, Temple said policies that encourage employment are better than those that condone unemployment.

“You cannot discount the value of work,” he said.

Temple said he was aware that many employers have lowered their costs by hiring part-time workers rather than full-time workers.

“It’s hard (for someone on welfare) to find a 40-hour job,” he said. “But it may be easier to find two 20-hour jobs.”

In Kansas, a parent applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) already is required to look for work and take part in a job training course that includes coming up with a plan for finding work.

Welfare recipients are expected to adhere to their plans. Those who don’t may lose their share of their family’s TANF assistance.

“Our assumption is that work is good for people and that people would rather be self-reliant than on public assistance,” said Angela de Rocha, a spokesperson for DCF. “If they’re not following their plan or if their plan isn’t working, we try to find out why.”

A welfare recipient’s employment status, she said, does not affect their eligibility for Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (also known as SNAP or food stamps).

Gilmore said DCF and the Kansas Department of Commerce had recently launched an initiative aimed at connecting employers who are looking for workers with welfare recipients who are looking for jobs.

“Before we make any more changes, I think, at this point we need to wait and see what the data tells us,” Gilmore said. “We want to do all we can do to help people get jobs. That’s a win-win for the individual and for the state. The question now is how do we get from A to Z?”

Also testifying before the 12-member task force:

• Mike Beene, state operations director for the Kansas Department of Commerce;

• Laurie Phelan, chief executive of Iowa Jobs for America's Graduates (I-JAG) and director of the Iowa School to Work Office;

• Myrna Kreihbel, representing the eight Circles of Hope programs in Kansas; and

• Brian Inbody, president of Neosho County Community College.

Gov. Sam Brownback briefly addressed the task force after lunch, saying he looked forward to receiving their recommendations.

The task force is expected to meet a third time within the next four to six weeks before assembling its recommendations. That meeting has not been scheduled. Today's meeting was the panel's second.

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