Sam Brownback Says His Anti-Poverty Policies Work, But Do They?

by | November 16, 2015

By Bryan Lowry

Gov. Sam Brownback wants to end a war that he thinks has racked up too many casualties and cost the nation trillions of dollars.

It was well-intentioned but misguided, he says. He sees no hope of victory unless the state and country change their strategy.

He's talking about the War on Poverty, which expanded welfare benefits and created food stamps in the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson envisioned creation of The Great Society, "not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."

Gov. Sam Brownback explains why he thinks President Johnson's War on Poverty failed and why he thinks Kansas needs to go in a new direction. Brownback says the programs have had the opposite effect. He blames them for the breakdown of the family and perpetuation of generational poverty. And he's pursuing what some call a radical strategy in the other direction: shortening the time recipients can receive benefits, requiring some to seek work and testing some for drugs.

"I grew up in a community in Linn County, Kansas, one of the lower income counties in the state, before you had all of the Great Society programs ... and we had, you know, intact families, people worked and the community kind of took care of each other," Brownback said in an interview with The Eagle.

"It worked as a community. But then you drop -- I guess in the Great Society they didn't think we were doing well enough taking care of each other, so then you start putting in a lot of programs into it and not requiring work. And not requiring that you would do job training and allowing really a harming of the family structure."

Brownback acknowledges that poverty programs cannot be blamed entirely for the breakdown of the family structure but says "in a number of cases I think it has exacerbated it."

"And it wasn't with anybody's ill intent. Nobody meant to hurt anybody. But we've spent now trillions of dollars on that design of poverty programs and the rates of poverty haven't changed," he said.

The system has not worked ... You've got generational poverty and you have a broken family structure, which is actually the most important piece to staying out of poverty.

He began instituting welfare changes soon after he became governor. In 2013, the Kansas Department for Children and Families began suspicion-based drug testing of welfare recipients. Some people saw that as harsh, but Brownback says it was sorely needed.

This year, he signed a bill limiting the time people can spend on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as TANF or welfare, to three years over a lifetime, with an exception for emergencies. The federal limit is five years. The law also requires adults to participate in job training or work at least 20 hours a week to keep their benefits after three months on the program.

Gov. Sam Brownback responds to criticism of his welfare reforms and argues that restoring family structure is the most important way to fight poverty.

Brownback's critics say that the governor is punishing people for being poor, but he says the policies encourage work and other behavior needed to lift people out of poverty.

The moves have inspired scorn on the left and accolades on the right. "Welfare works best when it's geared towards helping people achieve independence fast and feel the pride that only comes through a job," said Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Florida that recently honored Brownback for his policy changes.

State vs. federal data

The number of people on welfare in Kansas has dropped dramatically since Brownback took office -- from a monthly average of 38,963 people using TANF in 2011 to 15,008 in 2015, according to DCF.

That happened because people are going back to work, Brownback says. Since he took office, 34,539 TANF beneficiaries have reported finding new employment to DCF as of August.

But only 9.6 percent of Kansas families left the welfare program because of new employment in 2013, compared with 23.7 percent who left because they were sanctioned for failing to comply with the work or other requirements, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which works with states to administer welfare programs.

By contrast, 18.7 percent of people nationally left the program because they found work and 13.2 percent left because they were sanctioned. 9.6 % of Kansans on assistance left welfare because of new work in 2013 23.7 % left because they were sanctioned for failing to comply with requirements

Asked about the federal data, Theresa Freed, DCF spokeswoman, said the same federal report also showed that 35.6 percent of Kansas adults who receive TANF are employed, compared with the national rate of 22.6 percent.

"This statistic indicates Kansas is strong in obtaining employment for adults receiving TANF," she said in an e-mail. "We are 7th in the nation per this information."

Kansas welfare rates are falling much more sharply than poverty rates, said Liz Schott, an analyst with the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities based in Washington.

Out of every 100 Kansas families living in poverty, more than half were on cash assistance in 1996, compared with 13 on assistance in 2014, according to a center analysis.

Schott said if people were actually getting out of poverty, there wouldn't be such a sharp change in the ratio.

"Are those families out of poverty or are they just off TANF?" she asked. Are those families out of poverty or are they just off TANF?" Liz Schott, an analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about the drop in Kansas families receiving welfare

Hard to exit the system

Candra Jones, a 29-year-old single mother of four, works 47 hours a week both as a teaching assistant in the Wichita school district and as an aide with the YMCA's after-school program. She is pursuing a master's degree in social work from Wichita State University.

"I have to use the system. I don't want to. There's a lot of misconceptions," Jones said.

She uses the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- sometimes called SNAP or food stamps. She also relies on the state's child care assistance program.

"I'm trying to get out of poverty and get out of the system, but it's hard," Jones said.

Jones dropped out of school before eventually earning her GED and a college degree. She has had trouble with the law in the past, including a DUI arrest in 2010 when she was "younger and irresponsible." She lost her license, which still makes it difficult to get to and from work. She also had court fights with an ex-boyfriend over child custody, support and other matters.

"I don't feel like there's a second chance," Jones said. "You know, once you become a single parent or have kids out of wedlock ... I don't feel like there's a second chance."

The average benefit per person for food stamps in Kansas was $112 a month in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The welfare bill Brownback signed this year includes a provision meant to help SNAP beneficiaries collect child support.

I'm trying to get out of poverty and get out of the system, but it's hard.

Mentoring, support

Brownback calls strengthening the family structure "the toughest piece and ... the most important piece" of his plan to combat poverty.

"Will we embrace the family or not as a culture? And a lot of people do, but we've got a lot of kids suffering and struggling because of a difficult family structure," he said. "Much of it has to be a conversation we have with the culture ... I think it's something you have to talk about."

He hopes a mentoring program his administration plans to launch next year will play a role in strengthening families.

He and DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore would not provide specifics about how the program will work. He plans to base it on one used in the state corrections system.

That program pairs offenders being released from prison with community mentors. Those who have gone through the program reoffend at a rate less than half that of all offenders.

People in poverty face similar challenges in that they often lack a support system, Brownback said last month. He suggested a similar mentoring program could work for people trying to escape poverty.

The idea sounds similar in some ways to Circles, a community-based program that connects low-income people with a support network of volunteers.

Janis Cox, a retired teacher involved with Circles in Wichita, said many people struggle to break out of poverty because they live under "the tyranny of the moment."

It's difficult to do long-term financial planning when you're not sure how you'll pay your rent and other expenses this month, she said.

"I think policymakers want quick solutions, and there's no quick solution to poverty," Cox said. "Getting out of poverty is a long and messy road and it takes a lot of support. It takes a lot of connection to resources. It's so easy to get discouraged."

Simple things like getting to and from work can prove difficult without a support network, Cox said. A young woman she is working with has to take the bus to work, but the bus stops running before she gets off from work. Cox and another Circles volunteer take turns driving her home.

Cox voiced concern that shortening the length of time people can receive benefits will impede their ability to get out of poverty.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, said many policymakers don't understand the daily challenges people face.

"It just really irritates me when we're always talking about 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps.' A lot of times I know people that are looking for jobs on a regular basis just trying to improve their situation and it's difficult," she said. "It's even difficult for people who have a college degree."

Is focus off mark?

The welfare law Brownback signed this year gained national notoriety for prohibiting spending welfare money on things like movie tickets and cruises and for limiting the amount of cash welfare beneficiaries could withdraw from an ATM. The ATM policy later had to be scrapped because it conflicted with federal law.

Sister Therese Bangert, a Catholic nun with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, lobbies for compassionate treatment of the poor. She said she's worried that public statements from DCF often focus on efforts to curb welfare fraud rather than "a sense of these are struggling families."

"I do not hear empathy in any of their public statements," she said. "And that's a real concern to me because if you only think of people as fraudulent and abusive of the system, what kind of service are you giving them?"

She offered the compassionate message from Pope Francis about poverty as a contrast.

Brownback said many of his policy reforms are motivated by his Catholic faith. He quoted Pope John Paul II (who was declared a saint by the church last year) about "the dignity of work" in a recent interview.

Brownback's policies on poverty sometimes bring him into conflict with Catholic activists. He has not expanded Medicaid to cover uninsured Kansans through the Affordable Care Act, in part because the federal government will not allow a work requirement with the program. The state's bishops have pushed for the expansion.

Bangert said she did not know how knowledgeable the governor is about Catholic social teaching. She said many Catholics do not realize that one of the faith's tenets is that society provide an option for the poor and vulnerable.

Bangert has been a frequent critic of the governor's tax policies, which she says aren't fair to low-income people. Kansas is one of few states in the nation that taxes groceries at the same rate as other products. And the state has eliminated many tax credits meant to help low-income people, such as credits for renters and child care.

Elizabeth Hughes, a Wichita resident who is legally blind and relies on food stamps, said a sales tax increase the governor signed this year -- rather than rolling back income tax cuts -- has made it harder to budget her benefits money, which she said already did not cover a month's worth of food.

"I have to totally remake my budget and that means I short somebody somewhere because every penny is accounted for throughout the month," Hughes said.

"The beginning of the month I go and buy a lot of my meats and my eggs, and things of that nature and I try to stretch it out ... sometimes I go without," she said.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said that she thinks the governor is genuine in his desire to alleviate poverty. But, she added, he and other Republican policymakers have been too focused on punishing adults.

"We're really focused on the adults and the ideology around why adults depend on welfare as opposed to the reality of what we could do for today's generation of poor children to make sure they're not tomorrow's poor adults," she said.

Ensuring access to income supports, such as TANF and SNAP, and investment in early childhood education are the best ways to lift children out of poverty, Cotsoradis said. Research from the Center on Budget found that low-income children who have access to food stamps are 18 percent more likely to graduate high school.

Asked if he thinks his policies have been punitive, Brownback responds that his critics should "look at how punitive the system has been to people."

"Right now you've got generational poverty," Brownback said. "The system has not worked. ... It's the same as when LBJ started. You've spent trillions of dollars and you've got generational poverty and you have a broken family structure, which is actually the most important piece to staying out of poverty."

In 1960, the poverty rate in Sedgwick County was 13.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It has bounced up and down since then, but in 2010 it stood at 14.4 percent.

Stress of reliance

The administration's policies are meant to help the entire family, Gilmore said. "When dad or mom feel like they're living to their capacity, then they become a more satisfied individual, which makes them better parents ... and the whole family rises out of poverty."

DCF points to Sheree Ervin, a 38-year-old single mother in Wichita, as an example of this.

Ervin went on welfare and food stamps after she got divorced last year. She said that relying on welfare was a hit to her pride, but what she needs to do right now.

She said she has made mistakes in the past. She was caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart in 2003 and faced charges for petty theft. "Things were tight and it was stupid," she said. She was also arrested for driving with a suspended license and possession of an illegal butterfly knife in 2012 and said she is still working off the fines.

Her voice cracks with stress when she talks about what it's like relying on the programs.

"For me and my two girls, I get like $403 a month. And that's trying to pay rent, trying to pay bills, trying get non-food items, you know, essentials, like shampoo," Ervin said. "You know it's hard still getting by. It's hard ... I get split so much between my electric bill and my landlord."

Ervin completed DCF's job training program for TANF beneficiaries earlier this year. She has since earned her nursing assistant certification through the Kansas Health Profession Opportunity Project, which helps TANF beneficiaries train for health care jobs. She is now using the same program to pursue her medical assistant certification, which she said would enable her to earn $3 more an hour when she starts working.

"This has just been one of the greatest things for me," she said about the job training programs. "To be on the state (assistance) honestly I don't enjoy it. It's not enough. It's not like taking care of yourself. It's a means to get by when you have to. And once I'm off, I don't want to go back."

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