New governor wants to roll back cash assistance rules


State News

December 5, 2018 - 11:41 AM

Gov. Laura Kelly. KCUR

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ new Democratic governor wants state lawmakers to roll back a work requirement and other cash assistance rules championed by a Republican predecessor as she prepares to grapple with problems in the state’s child welfare system.

Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, a veteran state senator from Topeka, suggested Tuesday during a meeting of a child welfare task force that the cash assistance rules have put additional stress on poor families. She and other child welfare advocates contend the rules have helped fuel a rise in the number of abused and neglected children in the state’s foster care system.

The rules include the work requirement for able-bodied adults and a lifetime limit on benefits of 36 months, even with a hardship, and a proposal to loosen them will be difficult to sell to the Republican-controlled Legislature. Many GOP lawmakers believe the rules promote self-sufficiency, and Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, declared Kelly’s idea  “dead on arrival.” ”

But a legislative oversight committee for the state’s Medicaid program, which provides health coverage for the needy, has recommended that legislators reconsider the rules, and the child welfare task force plans to note the recommendation in its own report to lawmakers. Kelly served on both panels.

“We know that it has had a huge impact on our foster care system, and the Legislature needs a chance to discuss that and revise it if they see fit,” Kelly said during a break in the child welfare task force’s meeting Tuesday.

The state began toughening its administrative rules for cash assistance after then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011. Legislators wrote his policies into law in 2015 — to make it harder for another governor to undo them — and then tightened them in 2016.

Kansas requires able-bodied adults receiving both food stamps and cash assistance to work at least 20 hours a week, look for work or enroll in job training. It also tells families that they can’t use cash assistance to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic or buy lingerie. The list of don’ts amounts to several dozen items.

President Donald Trump’s administration has given states the go-ahead to impose Medicaid work requirements, and Arkansas became the first when it did so this year.

“It’s about getting them back to work so they’re self-sufficient,” said new House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, another Wichita Republican. “You want them to thrive.””

Advocates for the poor argue that such policies deny benefits.

Kansas Department for Children and Family figures show that since the 2011 budget year, the average number of people receiving cash assistance each month has dropped nearly 75 percent, to fewer than 9,700. The state previously provided cash assistance for nearly 26,000 children; the figure is now fewer than 7,500.

Meanwhile, the number of abused and neglected children placed in state custody in the Kansas foster care system has jumped 45 percent, to more than 7,500 at the end of October. Until September, some children in state custody were sleeping in foster care contractors’ offices, including a 13-year-old girl who in May was raped in an office by an 18-year-old man who also was in state custody.

DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said Tuesday the department is studying the effects of the welfare rules but that there’s “contradictory information” about a possible link between the rules and the rise in children in foster care. Kelly and other Democrats are confident the two are connected.

“We’ve seen an uptick in foster care numbers,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who serves on the child welfare task force. “It seems to be growing and growing.””