In January, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced that his state would use a network of volunteer mentors to help welfare recipients find work. It is the latest in a string of reforms by the Brownback administration to the state's welfare system.

Since 2011, the governor has shortened the time that low-income households are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from five years to three years. He has also signed into law measures to prevent people from misusing benefits on gambling, entertainment and expensive food.

Under Brownback's watch, the number of people accessing TANF benefits in a given month has dropped dramatically, from about 39,000 to 13,000. While state officials point to lower caseloads as a sign that poor people are becoming less dependent on the government, critics say the state isn't doing enough to help TANF recipients find employment before they lose their benefits.

Brownback's Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) Mentoring program is an answer to that criticism. It's modeled after an existing volunteer mentoring program for soon-to-be-released Kansas prison inmates. Over the next year, the goal is to sign up 1,100 volunteer mentors to be matched with 1,100 TANF recipients who are approaching their lifetime limit for TANF eligibility. In July, the state Department of Children and Families also plans to match mentors with young people aging out of the foster care system.

Governing spoke with Jim Echols, the HOPE Mentoring program director, about the new initiative. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How many volunteers have signed up for training so far?

We've got 50 projected individuals over the next four weeks who are attending the training in different locations throughout the state of Kansas. In the first training, we had First Lady Mary Brownback participate. She will soon to be matched up with a mentee herself. She has taken a leading role as a volunteer, and it's helping us with others.

I noticed that TANF clients don't have to participate. It's just an option.

Yes, it is a voluntary program. At this point, it's not a mandate for the client to participate. But we think we have enough features and benefits to encourage them to want to work with a mentor.

Who are your ideal mentors?

My hope is people in the faith-based community and people from the nonprofit sector -- people who are involved in a lot of community and civic activities -- will participate. We also plan to get as much support as we can from the private sector because we realize that a lot of the chamber groups and business associations could be a source of entry-level employment for individuals who successfully go through our program. We want to make the [mentor pool] as diverse as we can.


What makes you think a volunteer mentorship program like this will be successful?

We've seen how much success it's had within corrections. Within the first year out of prison, those with a mentor had a recidivism rate of 8.7 percent compared to 20.7 percent for the whole population. We think the corrections community has had success because in many cases the basic stumbling blocks and barriers that could become problematic have been discussed and addressed. We think if we can be that successful in a situation where an individual has been incarcerated, we will have a greater success rate in TANF.

What goes into the training? What do they learn?

Our current training is about half a work day. We cover issues that typical clients experience in their daily lives and the types of things that would be important as far as them becoming independent. We point out issues that deal with income, job skills, employment in general, transportation and child care.

In many cases, our TANF clients do not have a good grasp of how to navigate the resources available to them. We train our volunteers on all of the major resources available so that they can guide clients to them and can empower clients to access those resources on their own.

I would imagine that some people would say this is really the job of a professional case manager or social worker. Have you heard that criticism, and if so, what's your justification for relying on volunteer mentors?

What we've found is, there is a great chance, if not an even better chance, of successful outcomes with volunteers who are from a diverse cross section of society. The most educated person is not necessarily the best mentor, even if they're in a field such as therapy or social work. My hope is that some of the individuals who participate as mentees will become volunteer mentors in the future.

In The Wichita Eagle, the president of Kansas Action for Children said she thought there were already good mentoring programs offered by local nonprofits and that the TANF money being spent on volunteer mentoring -- about $545,000 over two years -- would be better used on things like housing, diapers and child care. What's your take on that criticism?

I've heard criticism on both extremes of the spectrum. I've heard that what we've been doing in the past was not enough as far as the amount of money being invested or provided as benefits to clients. I've heard it argued by some that it was too much. There is always a variance in the perception. It's hard to find a happy medium, but we do believe the energy and expense with the HOPE Mentoring program will more than pay for itself in a short time.