Republicans conduct costly experiment

Under the administration of Sam Brownback, assistance to needy families has been cut dramatically



July 16, 2019 - 10:58 AM

USDA data estimates that about 6% of the U.S. population, or 19 million people, live in food deserts. GETTY IMAGES/JUSTIN SULLIVAN VIA KANSAS REFLECTOR

Most Kansans are aware of former Governor Sam Brownback’s failed tax experiment, but fewer know of his equally flawed experimentation with the lives of Kansas children and families in poverty.

Beginning in 2011, Brownback initiated restrictions on federal aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, intended for poor families.

TANF provides cash assistance for families living in poverty as a result of job loss, divorce, health issues, domestic violence, the birth of a child, or other such disruptions in life. TANF encourages a transition from welfare to work, and states can design their own programs. TANF benefits are fully underwritten by the federal government, but federal law limits TANF lifetime benefits to no more than five years.

TANF typically serves families comprised of a single parent, predominately a mother, with two or more children, most aged 5 and under. TANF cash assistance for a family of four is roughly $500 per month.

Republican lawmakers followed Brownback’s lead, eventually writing more stringent TANF restrictions into law. Lifetime TANF benefits were lowered from five years to four years in 2011, shortened again to three years in 2015, and cut further to two years in 2016. Stricter work regulations were added as well.

Kansas Republicans theorized that forcing poor Kansans off welfare quickly would motivate them to find a job. Thus, the number of Kansas families assisted through TANF has been cut by three-fourths since 2011, and the state now ranks near the bottom among the 50 states in making TANF benefits available for needy families.

Blocking available TANF benefits did not open a path out of poverty, as Republicans imagined. Most beneficiaries worked before, during, and after exiting TANF, but, after losing TANF benefits, work was irregular. According to research on TANF in Kansas conducted by the national Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, during the first year after exiting TANF, nearly two-thirds of the parents had no earnings or earnings 50 percent below the poverty line. Four years after exiting TANF over half the families had earnings below 50 percent of the poverty line.

Further, a new Kansas study by Professors Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and Michelle Johnson-Motoyama of Ohio State concludes that recent TANF restrictions substantially increase the likelihood that affected children will enter foster care. The researchers found that TANF time limits alone dramatically increase the probability that children will be removed from parents and enter foster care. In total, they estimate 10,085 Kansas children have entered or eventually will enter foster care due to recent TANF restrictions, such as time limits or work sanctions

The costs to Kansas taxpayers of restricting TANF benefits and pushing children into foster care are huge. Kansas taxes pay none of the cost of TANF benefits but do pay 69 percent of the cost of foster care. An average 20-month stay in foster care for a single child costs Kansas taxpayers roughly $30,000. As a result, these researchers conservatively estimate that children who have entered or will eventually enter foster care, as a consequence of TANF restrictions begun in 2011, will cost $264 million in Kansas taxes.

Brownback sought to remake Kansas into a national model for red-state governance, but his experiment with the lives of these vulnerable Kansans is failing. This social engineering continues to contribute to the breakup of families, pushes children into foster care, and costs Kansas taxpayers millions. Republican lawmakers should acknowledge this human and financial tragedy and put an immediate end to this flawed social experiment.

Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and served with former Kansas Governors Bob Bennett and Mike Hayden.