Kansas Shortens Time Families Can Be on Welfare

A bill that will reduce the number of consecutive months families can receive welfare was signed Monday by Gov. Sam Brownback, who says it will help push people out into the work force faster.

By Bryan Lowry

A bill that will reduce the number of consecutive months families can receive welfare was signed Monday by Gov. Sam Brownback, who says it will help push people out into the work force faster.

SB 402 will reduce the time frame a family can receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to 24 months from 36 months, unless a family gets a hardship exemption.

It also reduces the lifetime limit in Kansas from four years to three years. The federal limit is five years.

The change won't save the state money because the program is funded by federal dollars. But Brownback said he thinks it will spur people to reenter the job market sooner.

"The longer you're out of the work force, the harder it is to get back into it, and this is encouraging people to get back into the work force on a sooner basis so that the deterioration of those work skills doesn't continue to happen," Brownback said. "... You need people getting back in the game quicker."

He compared it to having a deadline on a college term paper.

"It's a piece of human nature for too many of us, myself included, that you don't generally act until you get right up against the deadline," Brownback said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who helped craft the law, said he thinks that two years is a reasonable time frame for people to find jobs that pay enough that they no longer need cash assistance.

"We want them to get back to work to where they're self-sustaining. ... TANF was never, ever meant to be something that people would stay on long term," said Hawkins, the House Health and Human Services Committee chairman.

A series of welfare changes

The law is the latest in a series of welfare changes enacted under Brownback.

The changes are meant to enable people to lift themselves out of poverty, the governor says. But critics say they kick people off assistance without actually helping to resolve their financial instability.

Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank that studies welfare policy, said shortening the limit to 24 months is likely to hurt families.

"While most TANF families have received benefits for less than 24 months, there are some families who do need more time on aid," she said in an e-mail. "Research shows that families that lose TANF due to time limits fare worse -- are less likely to be employed and have lower earnings if they are employed -- than other welfare leavers."

Kansas also has enacted work and drug-testing requirements for the program since Brownback took office in 2011.

Only 8.7 percent of the families who left TANF in Kansas in 2014 cited new employment as the primary reason, compared with 81 percent in neighboring Missouri, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in March.

In Kansas, 31.1 percent of families who left the program were sanctioned for failing to meet the state's work requirements; 19.6 left because they had failed to meet another program requirement or reached the state's time limit.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said the changes primarily affect families with young children.

"These are kids who are then going without shelter, without food, without shoes on their feet. ... This is money that's helping families meet the most basic of needs," she said.

Many of these families bounce in and out of poverty, she said, and the three-year lifetime limit makes "it harder for these families to climb out of poverty over the long haul, which in turn just subjects those children to all of the consequences of growing up in poverty, making it that much more likely they'll be poor adults."

Provisions of the law

The law also enables the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to enact step therapy for the state's Medicaid program, which is estimated to save the state nearly $11 million next fiscal year. Step therapy requires patients to try lower-cost drugs before they can be approved for more expensive treatments.

It also enacts several policies supporters say will prevent welfare fraud. It requires the Kansas Department for Children and Families to:

-- Monitor how frequently people request replacements for their electronic benefits cards.

-- Verify the identities of all adults living in households receiving cash assistance.

-- Check each month whether people who have won $5,000 or more from the lottery are receiving benefits.

It also makes anyone who fails to cooperate with a fraud investigation ineligible for TANF benefits.

And it penalizes food stamp recipients who fail to comply with the state's work and job training requirements, eliminating their eligibility for three months to a year depending on whether it is a first offense.

Sen. Michael O'Donnell, R-Wichita, one of the bill's main proponents, said in an e-mail that whether "fraud is 2% or 20% we need to make sure government assistance is protected and reserved for the individuals who need truly help." He said these changes "will go a long way in protecting the taxpayer and our welfare system in Kansas."

Cotsoradis lamented that much of the conversations about welfare at the Statehouse have centered on "adults and the adults' choices" and not on ensuring their children don't follow them into poverty.

"The goal has to be to lift these families out of poverty, not to push them into low-wage jobs where they still can't make ends meet," she said. "It's not a long-term strategy. It's pretty short-sighted, and it's very short-sighted in terms of the consequences for children."

(c)2016 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.