TOPEKA — On the campaign trail in 2010, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback promised Kansans a cornerstone of his service as governor would be devotion to drawing low-income children away from the clenched fist of poverty.
Eight years later, as Gov. Brownback settles into his final year in office, the 2018 Legislature is preparing to judge whether administration policies strengthened or frayed the safety net of the state’s most economically vulnerable kids.
Reduction in the percentage of children living in poverty was among five benchmarks of self-assessment touted by Brownback when taking office in 2011. The respected Kids Count report, a collaboration of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kansas Action for Children, shows the poverty rate among children in Kansas has diminished.
“One of the five measurables that I ran on was reducing childhood poverty,” Brownback said. “We’re now down from 19 percent to 14 percent.”
He said change was a consequence of administration officials building stronger families with a philosophy that promoted work rather than welfare. State lawmakers reinforced the idea through regulatory and statutory changes that included sharp restrictions on eligibility for food stamps and reduction in lifetime access to cash aid through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF benefits were clipped from a maximum of 48 months to no more than 24 months.
While Brownback and GOP allies praise reduction of TANF recipients in Kansas from 14,300 in 2011 to 4,500 in 2017, the number of Kansas children in foster care during that period expanded. From 2012 to 2017, the number of foster care kids in state custody swelled by more than 30 percent to 7,200.
Researchers at the University of Kansas recently shared initial findings of a study that linked reduction in availability of TANF to the state’s rise in foster care cases.
Officials at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which has responsibility for foster care and welfare programs, disputed results of the KU study.
“We obviously think we have the policy right, but we’ll continue to look at that,” said Gina Meier-Hummel, who was appointed last month as secretary of DCF.
There is growing anxiety among Republican and Democratic state legislators that government policy during the Brownback era inadvertently harmed children.
“I do think that that is a very significant part of the conversation,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican. “When I talk overall health and well-being of our kids, I think we’ve seen that some of the changes made to those programs have had an adverse effect on kids in our school system. We need to be putting all of those pieces together in a more holistic fashion, and we need to address the systemic challenges that wrap around our kids.”
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said celebration among Brownback administration officials about families skipping away from poverty was misplaced.
“What has claimed to be success actually represents denial of services to people in need,” he said.
The 2017 Legislature authorized a task force of state lawmakers, government officials and child advocates to conduct a two-year evaluation of the state’s approach to handling children in need of care. Their work coincided with disturbing reports that DCF was unable to locate approximately 75 foster children and that kids in foster care were sleeping on floors in offices of the state’s contractors because no home could be found for them.
“It seems to me we’ve got a foster care system that’s in crisis,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “I go back to when Bill Graves decided as governor to privatize foster care. I just don’t think it’s worked very well.”
In the legislative session that opens Monday, there will be a push to rescind provisions of Hope Act welfare reform laws adopted in 2015 and 2016. The work requirement for women after giving birth and the two-year lifetime limit on TANF aid could be targets.