More than one in four Kansas children in homes headed by single mothers have experienced hunger.
By Dave Ranney
Topeka -- A new report based on federal census data shows that 27 percent of Kansas children living in single-parent households headed by women have experienced hunger. That's more than twice the national average.
"That finding is particularly striking," said Robert St. Peter, president of the Kansas Health Institute, which conducted the analysis.
St. Peter said the data don't explain why so many Kansas children have experienced hunger.
"I suspect there's a strong relationship between family structure and income," he said, noting that most single women have lower incomes than single men and that most single-parent families' incomes are less than their two-parent counterparts.
The report, released at a news conference here Thursday, also showed:
- One-fourth of all Kansans living in households with annual incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level -- $28,803 for a family of four -- reported not having "a secure source of food" sometime during the previous year.
- Black Kansans are three times more likely than white Kansans to experience food shortage.
- More than 300,000 Kansans -- adults and children -- have gone through periods not having enough to eat.
Based on extrapolations of 1995 census data, the analysis is meant to be a "baseline" for tracking whether hunger in the state is increasing or decreasing, St. Peter said. Data from 1996-98 census surveys will be available later this year.
Advocates for children said the findings reinforce their fears that in the wake of welfare-reform initiatives, state officials are not doing enough to encourage families to remain on food stamps after they no longer are eligible for cash assistance.
"We are very concerned about the impact that welfare reform is having on Kansas children," said Gary Brunk of Lawrence, executive director of Kansas Action for Children.
"We already know that from July of 1996 to February of 1999, the number of food-stamp recipients went from around 82,000 to about 54,000," he said. "And we suspect that while most of these people are off welfare, they remain poor."
John Garlinger, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, said the decline in food-stamp use is not unique to Kansas.
"This is a national phenomena," Garlinger said. "Much of it's because more people are working."
SRS records show that many of the state's working poor remain eligible for -- but do not take advantage of -- the federally funded food-stamp program.
Brunk and others say that's because state officials don't do enough to encourage former welfare recipients to stay on food stamps. But Garlinger said SRS influence over former welfare recipients is minimal.
"Anecdotally, we're told that when people are no longer eligible for cash assistance, they don't want anything to do with welfare or the bureaucracy," he said. "And once they're out of the system, they're almost impossible to keep track of."
Nevertheless, Garlinger said, SRS wants to do more to encourage low-income Kansans to apply for food stamps.
"We need to take a serious look at outreach," he said.
The Kansas Health Institute analysis is unique, St. Peter said, because no other state has gone to the trouble -- and expense -- of using the census data to define hunger issues.
"It's a very complicated process," St. Peter said. "But now that we've done it, we're getting calls from a lot of states that want to do it, too."
The findings were no surprise to Wally Henning, executive director of the Head Start program in Lawrence. The issues of hunger, poverty and parenting are intertwined, he said.
"Based on the trends that all of us in social services are seeing, I can guarantee you that we're talking about parents who, today, are younger, more likely to be single and less prepared to parent," Henning said.
"Welfare reform is going to have a heck of an impact on these folks."
-- Dave Ranney's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.