Health & Human Services

Can Tough Love Help Reduce Poverty?

By making it more difficult to get and keep government assistance like welfare, Kansas and a half-dozen other states are hoping people will make more of an effort to lift themselves out of poverty.
November 2013

Barry Feaker can’t keep up with demand. He runs the Topeka Rescue Mission, which provides poor people in the Kansas capital with the most basic necessities of life—food, clothing and shelter. He’s doubled his shelter space, but the beds have already filled up with women and children needing a place to stay. The number of meals his army of volunteers dishes out has also risen steadily and quickly, from 147,000 meals in 2001 to 196,000 in 2008 and on up to 258,000 last year. Feaker’s group sends home lots of meals too. The number of food baskets in 2012 surpassed the total given out during the previous four years combined; it has continued to rise this year.

The Topeka Rescue Mission is one of any number of private and nonprofit groups that are helping to take up some of the slack in a state that has been cutting assistance to the poor, even at a time when poverty rates are increasing. “People are still hungry at the end of the day,” Feaker says. “You [can] cut them off assistance; they’re still going to want to eat. We all understand this.”

Feaker refuses to blame state policies for the problems that show up daily at his door, but they aren’t helping—at least not yet. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback believes that the decades-old approach of trying to alleviate poverty through direct government assistance is badly in need of retooling. Brownback made the reduction of poverty, particularly among children, one of the centerpieces of his 2010 campaign. Since taking office, he has cut numerous programs intended to help the poor. The state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or welfare, caseload is down by a third on his watch due to changes in eligibility requirements. Kansas routinely denies about three-quarters of welfare applications, which is more than double the rate in neighboring Missouri.

Most of the changes cut people off unless they find work or engage in some type of training. This is consistent with Brownback’s overall philosophy. Rather than giving poor people a “pittance,” he says, policies should prod them into finding work. “Our country has spent billions of dollars and decades supporting a welfare system that has shown no improvement getting people out of poverty,” Brownback says. “Instead of focusing on spending more money on a system that creates dependency, we need to reform our welfare system to provide the opportunity for people to learn the skills to be self-sufficient, which is what we are doing here in Kansas.”

Brownback isn’t alone in seeking a new approach. Virtually all states have made cuts to social service programs in recent years, due to the traditional Catch-22 presented by recessions: Revenues dry up just as the need is increasing. But Brownback’s motivation is not purely fiscal. Last month, he let a federal waiver lapse that had kept 22,000 Kansans on food stamps, at no cost to the state. Oklahoma and Wisconsin, along with a half-dozen other states, are making equivalent changes.

It’s part of a renewal of the argument about how large a role the government should play in helping poor people get on their feet. For conservatives like Brownback, it’s all about tough love. Giving people handouts only enables them to remain mired in poverty. “We want to continue encouraging self-sufficiency,” says Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF). “People who are working feel better, and then they work their way out of poverty, which has a generational effect and is good for the whole society.”

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Everyone agrees that jobs are the best anti-poverty program, but advocates for the poor say there just aren’t enough of them to go around. Those that have been created since the recession often don’t pay well enough for people to pay for rent, food and utilities, while still leaving something for transportation and child care. The result is that there are people who are working, but remain poor and may even be homeless. “Because we don’t have the traditional safety net buffers, working-class families are finding it more difficult to climb out of poverty after the recession,” says Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children. “People assume these programs are for the chronically poor, but that system also exists to help people who are struggling through no fault of their own.”

The state will always want to help those in sudden and dire need, Gilmore says, but assistance programs were meant to be a bridge, “not a parking lot or garage where people just come and stay.” Brownback’s idea seems to be that if you make it more difficult to continue living in poverty, people will make more of an effort to lift themselves out of it. The co-chair of his Task Force on Reducing Childhood Poverty, Sherdeill Breathett, is a pastor at the state’s largest predominantly African-American church and lived for a time on government assistance as a child. That kind of help did nothing to alleviate the squalor his family was living in. But he was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of a friend’s father. With his encouragement, Breathett hit the books and broke his habit of flunking courses, thereby setting his life onto the right path. Being shown how to take responsibility for himself was better than receiving any kind of free ride, he says. “I’m not saying there aren’t some people who still fall through the cracks,” Breathett says. “Under those types of circumstances, we need to help them, but not to keep them there.”

Kansas has never been a particularly generous state when it comes to assisting the poor. It ranks 36th in terms of the average benefit given to food stamp recipients, and it’s almost impossible for childless adults to qualify for Medicaid. Even those with children have a hard time qualifying: They can’t earn more than a third of the federal poverty level, or $5,900 for a family of four. “We already have a tenuous safety net to begin with,” says Anna Lambertson, executive director of the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition. “When it comes to health care and access to coverage, we have a virtually nonexistent safety net.”

According to the federal definition of poverty, about 14 percent of the population in Kansas is poor. Those numbers get higher for children, particularly those under 5. Almost half the state’s children qualify for free or reduced school lunch programs. Despite the need, Brownback has done everything he can to reduce caseloads. He’s closed numerous regional DCF offices, making it harder for people to apply for programs in person. Once they apply, they are no longer assigned individual caseworkers to help them navigate the eligibility process. Instead, their case number is assigned to a color-coded team. (Unlike states that rely on counties to administer social service programs, the state of Kansas does most of the work of providing services itself.)

Gilmore says that much of the work of setting people straight can be done through the kind of “mentoring” that Breathett received. She points with pride to the state’s job training programs, which she says can help play this type of role. But advocates for the poor report that it’s difficult reaching a live person in the department, let alone having someone take you on as a protégé. “Now, it’s almost impossible to get through to anybody at the DCF office,” says Jake Howard, a former state caseworker who is currently at a community action agency in Ottawa, Kan. “You call and they say, ‘We’re going to get you through to the green team,’ but inevitably no one will answer and no one will get back to you.”

There’s less help available, and less help in how to get help. That makes things particularly challenging for people who are new to poverty. One advantage the chronically destitute tend to have is an accumulated knowledge of the resources available to them. Those who are unaccustomed to hard times may not know where to turn when their circumstances slip due to a job loss or medical bills. Kansas, along with other places, is seeing a lot of what might be called post-recession poverty—families that are unable to bounce back to the kind of financial health they enjoyed in the recent past. They are unable to find jobs, or jobs that pay as well or offer as many hours of employment as they may have lost. “For that particular population, just that initial hurdle of them recognizing that they have to reach out—that’s something they haven’t experienced,” says Hannes Zacharias, county manager of Johnson County. “It’s been a shocking new reality for many citizens.”

Johnson County has traditionally been one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the state, but it’s seeing an increasing number of residents slip into poverty. Among the Kansas City suburbs as a whole, poverty just about doubled—increasing 97 percent—between 2000 and 2011. That’s an extreme example of a nationwide trend. Some of the growth in suburban poverty can be attributed to new populations, including immigrants. But most of it has to do with larger economic changes. Now, for the first time, there are more poor people living in suburbs nationwide than in the large cities. “The most suburbanized industries tend to pay low wages or have been hit quite hard by the downturn,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. “If we look to the jobs being created fastest in the recovery, a lot of those won’t lift you above the poverty line, even if you’re working full time.”

That’s one thing Brownback’s critics don’t like about his approach. Lots of people are working but still struggling, often due to circumstances outside their control. An engineer in Franklin County lost his job when his boss wouldn’t give him time off for needed surgery. A man who relocated to Johnson County for a job after his home was damaged by the May tornado in Oklahoma is still not making enough to keep his four children out of homeless shelters. “If a job doesn’t pay enough to keep a family out of poverty or to pay the basic bills, then that job is not the road out of poverty,” says Tawny Stottlemire, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs.

One of Brownback’s primary concerns as governor has been encouraging job creation, largely through a policy of large income tax cuts. DCF Secretary Gilmore says that the economy in Kansas is “the best that it’s been since 2008” and that she sees help wanted signs all the time. Any job, she says, can lead to better outcomes. “It may not be the job the person necessarily wants, but if they take the jobs that are available, they can be stepping stones. The opportunity is there.”

But not all of Brownback’s policies have actually encouraged work. Although he has made changes to programs such as welfare—to require more work—he has sought to eliminate the state’s earned-income tax credit, which offers help to the working poor. The legislature hasn’t gone along with that idea, but it has eliminated a tax credit that helped the poor with child care and another that gave them rebates on sales taxes paid on food. “In 2012 and 2013, while every other income group saw some tax break, our poorest Kansans actually saw a tax hike,” says Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

At Cross-Lines Community Outreach, the wait for meals keeps getting longer. The Kansas City, Kan., nonprofit offers counseling, rental assistance and other aid to the poor, but the most pressing need is food. “People who used to come to us twice a year are now coming on a regular basis,” says Susila Jones, the group’s director of emergency services. “The demand is definitely increasing, but unfortunately the resources that we have are not increasing at the rate of the need.”

Cross-Lines grows tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables on its property in the Armourdale neighborhood, but the group relies heavily on donations of money and food. Churches and other local groups that used to look to provide help over the border in Kansas City, Mo., or even on overseas missions are now finding there’s plenty of demand closer to home.

Many of the people who come for meals are working, but some have only found part-time jobs or have to piece together a small income doing things like recycling metal and other scraps. Others are homeless and aren’t always able to hold onto identification cards they might need to apply for work. “The jobs that are created, people in poverty are not always able to fill,” Jones says.

Mark Holland, the mayor of Kansas City, Kan., says he sees many signs of state neglect in his community. For one thing, the state-owned mental hospital fell into such a state of disrepair that it was shut down by the fire marshal two years ago. Holland says he’s lobbied Brownback to accept the Medicaid expansion that is part of the Affordable Care Act. He calls the expansion the single most important thing the state could do to help the poor in Wyandotte County. Brownback’s philosophy, the mayor says, doesn’t account for the fact that people with mental health issues or chronic physical health problems may not be able to find or keep a job. “The question is, if people aren’t able to work, should it be ‘tough luck’?”

A third-generation Methodist minister, Holland underscores his disapproval of Brownback’s approach by paraphrasing scripture, specifically Matthew 25: “I was hungry, and you cut my food stamps,” he says. “I was sick, and you refused to expand Medicaid. People of faith need to remember Matthew 25.”

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