Topeka Conservative Republican legislators were critical Tuesday of an audit of Kansas benefit programs that looked for but found few disincentives that might keep people from getting married.
Republicans raised questions during a Legislative Post Audit Committee hearing in Topeka about the report, which concluded that eligibility requirements and regulations had little, if any, effect on clients’ decisions to get married.
“Our analysis yielded mixed results across programs, and frequently mixed results within a program,” Joe Lawhon said. “In some situations marriage mattered. In other situations it did not.”
The report looked at eligibility requirements for 36 state benefit programs, including temporary assistance and veteran programs. It found that 29 areas did have income criteria that had the potential to discourage marriage.
However, during questioning of program staff and clients, auditors learned there was little information as to whether eligibility for services actually caused people to avoid getting married.
A glance at marriage
The audit is the first legislative report to look at marriage since Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in January. As part of his administration’s focus on stimulating the economy, the conservative former U.S. senator has put an emphasis on encouraging more marriages in Kansas and fewer divorces and cohabitations.
Supporters argue that creating family stability reduces poverty and increases earning potential of Kansas residents. Opponents of the governor’s plan question the focus on social issues and religious overtones of the message, including intent to increase faith-based initiatives.
During Tuesday’s hearing, conservatives questioned the validity of what they called “subjective” responses from agency staff and clients contained in the audit.
“Sometimes the way you ask questions can have a big effect on the responses you get,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook, a Shawnee Republican.
She suggested that auditors go back and rephrase their questions “with a different premise.” She said program staff and participants should be asked that if the eligibility criteria were to be changed, would they consider it be an incentive for marriage.
Rep. John Grange, an El Dorado Republican and chairman of the committee, suggested those questions be the subject of a future audit, if necessary.
A ‘mixed bag’
Lawhon said auditors tried to get as many responses from across Kansas, but it was difficult under privacy laws to get some information. Lawhon noted that 31 staff members in two agencies and 23 clients agreed to be interviewed for the audit.
He also said some clients simply refused to talk to state officials about their marital status or decisions.
The overall results of the audit, he said, were a “mixed bag” with no conclusive results that program rules were hindering marriage.
“If we would have interviewed more staff, we would have gotten a larger mixed bag,” he said.
Sen. Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said the audit shed light on the issue, but agreed it was incomplete and unscientific because of the small pool of interviews.
One Democrat said the lack of cooperation was likely because people simply didn’t want to talk to state officials about such matters.
“People don’t want people prying into their own personal business,” said Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Responding to the findings, Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki said either the auditors should have made more effort to interview additional staff and more clients or that portion of the audit should have been dropped.
Siedlecki said the audit’s finding that there were disincentives to getting married in eligibility requirements in 29 of the 36 programs was not surprising.
“The audit validates the department’s internal findings and supports the policy changes to eligibility criteria to reduce those disincentives,” he said.
SRS recently announced a series of eligibility changes aimed at treating applicants the same whether they are married, single or in other relationships. The changes include counting all household income in determining benefits, including live-in boyfriends or girlfriends and illegal immigrants.
Siedlecki said the changes, including others that would require clients to look for work while on temporary assistance, could save his department as much as $20 million that could be reinvested in agency programs.
SRS also has applied for a federal grant that would offer marriage counseling and related information to clients. The program is part of the administration’s goal to encourage marriage, reduce the number of divorces in Kansas and reduce childhood poverty through stable families.