A Johnson County organization has criticized Kansas policies that govern families eligibility for poverty assistance and has called on the states Department for Children and Families to provide more effective aid.
BY SANGEETA SHASTRY
Special to The Star
In a December report, United Community Services of Johnson County, an organization that offers resources and analysis on human services needs in the county, aimed to draw attention to difficulties low-income residents continue to encounter, particularly in light of some Kansans inability to provide for their families over the recent holiday season.
These are year-round challenges that these families face, said Executive Director Karen Wulfkuhle.
Johnson County has seen a decline in recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, Wulfkuhle said. In July 2011, about 2,600 residents were receiving assistance; in June 2013, that number had dropped to 1,200. That trend led the organization to investigate poverty assistance statewide.
Wulfkuhle and the report attributes the decline to policies enacted since November 2011 that promote smaller numbers of caseloads for the state, not improved aid to families living in poverty. The 33 percent decline in TANF cash assistance doled out between 2008 and 2013 is more likely a result of stricter eligibility requirements and greater sanctions for not meeting work participation rules than improvements in Kansas poverty rates, the report noted.
Theresa Freed, communications director for the state department, said in an emailed statement that the state hopes to invest in future efforts such as new and innovative ways to grow employment services to help Kansas families obtain self-sufficiency.
While we disagree with some of the claims and conclusions in the report, we believe some of the suggestions have merit, and we would welcome additional input from United Community Services of Johnson County on how we can work together in the future, Freed said in the statement.
To better serve its poor, Wulfkuhle said, the state should prioritize improving cash assistance for important services such as childcare and employment aid. The organizations report underscored the decline in those types of funding childcare and employment made up less one-third of TANF expenditures in 2013, while they accounted for more than half of TANF spending in 2008.
In 2012, Kansas spent less than 42 other states on childcare and employment services, according to the report. The assistance the department does provide isnt enough, the report argues, and a policy requiring mothers to return to work when their children turn 2 months old clashes with some childcare providers that dont accept the departments benefits or wont care for a child that young, Wulfkuhle said.
Having those kinds of restrictions on childcare creates a barrier for people who are trying to find work, she said. If they cant afford childcare, they really cant afford to work.
More effective employment services also should be a priority, Wulfkuhle said, noting that those who turn to TANF funds for assistance usually face significant barriers to employment. Helping people find jobs shouldnt be based on current state expectations that those job seekers will successfully locate and maintain employment independently, particularly if they have disabilities, Wulfkuhle said.
We agree that people should be working and able to support their families, but it does appear that the amount of money invested in employment services is very small compared to the total TANF budget, she said.
In its statement, the state emphasized that TANF cash assistance is only meant to be a temporary solution.
We fully intend to invest and are in the process of investing more in employment services so that welfare programs (TANF, SNAP and child care) are only needed temporarily, the statement reads.
According to Census Bureau data, poverty rates in Johnson County jumped from around 4.5 percent before the 2008 recession to 6.8 percent in 2012.
We have, over our history, monitored indicators that would help us understand what is going on in the community, Wulfkuhle said, listing school lunch subsidies, food stamps and TANF benefits as examples. They just werent coming down after the recession. But food stamps still continued to climb. It just raised questions about why so many fewer people (were) receiving TANF.
Johnson County isnt alone as a suburb with rising poverty rates its a national trend.
If you look at the kind of jobs that are growing in suburbs, they are low-wage jobs, Wulfkuhle said. Its no surprise that we have more families that are living on lower incomes in suburban communities.
And the difficulties that urban and suburban families living in poverty face dont necessarily extend to other demographics.
Looking ahead, the organization plans to brief Johnson Countys legislative delegation and start a discussion about what Wulfkuhle calls more strategic investment in poverty assistance.