Kansas lawmakers question impact of welfare reduction: Is it putting more kids in foster care?

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, asks questions about the impact of recent welfare policies during a meeting Wednesday of the Legislative Budget Committee.

? Some Kansas lawmakers began questioning the impact of welfare policy changes enacted under the Brownback administration after new numbers were released Wednesday from the Department for Children and Families showing an estimated 43,715 people have become ineligible for cash assistance under those policies.

Those numbers were released during a meeting of the joint Legislative Budget Committee, which was being briefed Wednesday on the new consensus revenue estimates, along with new estimates about the cost of social services such as Medicaid, foster care and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, more commonly known as “cash assistance.”

A number of lawmakers on the committee noted that thousands of people have been coming off the TANF rolls each year since 2013 while at the same time the number of children in foster care has been climbing to record levels.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, asks questions about the impact of recent welfare policies during a meeting Wednesday of the Legislative Budget Committee.

Many of the policy changes were intended to encourage welfare recipients to go into job-training programs and move into gainful employment in order to break what some have called a cycle of dependence on welfare.

But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the state’s flat employment numbers over the last few years indicate to her that the goal is not being met.

“Employment numbers aren’t going up,” she said. “But the other concern that I certainly have has to do with we’re using that money and shifting it to areas that we have robbed over the last six years, and we need to have respect for the revenue sources that are providing funding for those other programs. Using TANF money to fill the potholes for other things.”

Kansas receives about $100 million a year in the form of a federal block grant to pay for social services aimed at the poor, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan Research Department. However, staff from that department noted that Kansas uses that money for a number of programs other than TANF, such as reading programs targeting low-income children and Parents as Teachers.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget panel, specifically asked for evidence to show that the people being moved off of welfare rolls actually are finding gainful employment.

“I doubt it. I think people are just getting thrown off of assistance, and what they’re doing to survive, I don’t know,” Kelly said. “But I also think there may very well be a correlation between the reduction in assistance and the increase we have in the number of kids in foster care.”

According to separate numbers released Wednesday, Kansas currently has a record number of children in foster care, at more than 6,000, and that number is expected to continue to climb for the next two fiscal years.

“Because the pressure we put on those families when we take away cash assistance, the ability to feed themselves, feed their kids, just intensifies in a household and makes it more difficult to preserve that family,” Kelly said. “Thus, more kids go into foster care. I can’t prove that. But, it’s interesting how we’ve had this massive influx of kids into our foster care system at the same time that we’re reducing public assistance.”

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes critics are leaping to conclusions.

“I don’t think there’s a correlation between the two,” he said. “Obviously the welfare reforms that we did a couple of years ago were needed, and we wanted to have some type of resolution as to not having individuals chronically on welfare. I don’t think there’s a correlation between the two that the representative is trying to make.”

But House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said he finds it hard to believe the people being moved off welfare are finding gainful employment in a flat Kansas job market.

“I think that they arbitrarily told people “you’re off the program,” with no transition or no connection to job training, work or the ability to get a job,” Ward said. “One of the reasons you can get away with that is that those people aren’t here in expensive suits telling us about their plight. They’re trying to survive. They’re the ones sleeping on park benches if you go down to Wichita, by the public library.”