Editorial: Revisit laws on welfare

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Kansas should look closely at whether the state’s restrictions on public assistance are in part to blame for a significant increase in children in the state’s foster care system

Incoming Gov. Laura Kelly said this week that new welfare rules adopted in 2015 have put stress on poor families and resulted in a spike in the number of children in the state’s foster care system.

“We know that it has had a huge impact on our foster care system, and the Legislature needs a chance to discuss that and revise it if they see fit,” Kelly said.

Starting in 2011, during the tenure of Gov. Sam Brownback, the state Department for Children and Families began implementing policies making it harder to qualify for public assistance. Those policies were adopted into law in 2015.

The law sets a lifetime limit of 36 months to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and requires healthy adults to participate in a job training program or work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for benefits. When the law was signed, Brownback and Phyllis Gilmore, then DCF secretary, touted it as a way to lift residents out of poverty and foster self-reliance.

The policies have definitely pushed residents off of public assistance. Since 2011, the average number of people receiving cash benefits each month has dropped nearly 75 percent, to fewer than 9,700. The state had provided assistance to more than 25,000 children; the figure is now fewer than 7,500.

During the same period, the number of neglected children in the Kansas foster care system has increased 45 percent, to more than 7,500 at the end of October.

Initial reaction to Kelly’s plan to address the foster care system by looking at the welfare laws was chilly, especially from Republicans. Senate President Susan Wagle said such a plan would be dead on arrival.

And House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins isn’t ready to roll back the welfare restrictions. “It’s about getting (public assistance recipients) back to work so they’re self-sufficient,” Hawkins said. “You want them to thrive.”

But what happens when they aren’t able to thrive? Is taking away public assistance the best answer?

It certainly stands to reason that policies limiting public benefits have disrupted families and forced more children into the foster care system. And most often, the cost of caring for a child in state custody is greater than the welfare benefits provided.

Public assistance programs are meant to provide a helping hand to those in need and the goal should always be for that assistance to be a bridge to the workforce and independence. But if the new welfare restrictions are forcing more children into state care — at an increased cost to the state and to the detriment of the children and their families — it’s only prudent to revisit those restrictions. Kelly’s idea makes sense and legislators like Wagle and Hawkins would be wise to open their minds to at least exploring potential reforms during the 2019 session.


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