Poverty-stricken Kansans have not fared well at the hands of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Poor folks, the thinking around the Capitol goes, wouldn’t need help if they had the gumption to get a job.
This jaundiced attitude toward the poor does not pass the test of data-driven information needed to shape sound public policy.
Brownback and legislators would do well to look at an extensive study on poverty by the United Community Services of Johnson County. By examining the facts in the study they could learn that the conservative-laden rhetoric is badly misinformed.
Among key findings in Johnson County: Of working-age adults living below the poverty line, nearly two of three work full-time, part-time or hold temporary jobs. Finding full-time employment is a challenge. Four of 10 jobs are for part-time or temporary work.
Yet Brownback and the Kansas Legislature have approved changes in tax laws that penalize the poor and reward the well-to-do. They have abolished the homestead property tax refund for renters, the food sales tax rebate and the child and dependent care credit.
The Kansas Department of Children and Families, which administers the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has imposed more stringent eligibility rules and increased sanctions, according to Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services.
She said the changes keep people from qualifying for help and force others off the program before they have achieved self-sufficiency.
Ultimately, these misguided attacks on the poor exacerbate problems that affect children in poverty: Hunger, homelessness and mental illness. The details were outlined in a recent report by the news service of the Kansas Health Institute, or KHI.
The rise of poverty in Johnson County was noted. Many may be surprised by this turn. Jim Hinson, who is in his first year as superintendent of the Shawnee Mission school district, told a state legislative committee last month that he was taken aback.
Hinson said he found that “we have school nurses who are the primary health care providers” for many poorer students.
There are not enough of the nurses to help students cope with what is happening to them at home, he said, explaining that “one of our kindergartners watched her mother commit suicide in front of her.”
The KHI report noted that pupils in need in the district receive backpacks of food on Fridays or prior to holidays to provide them with something to eat while they are away from classes.
Teachers in Kansas witness hunger first hand.
“They see children in the lunchroom hoarding food because they want to take it home for a little brother or sister,” said Ellen Feldhausen, who speaks for Harvesters, a hunger-relief agency that provides the food for the backpacks.
Homelessness is up markedly. In the last school year there were 427 students without homes in the Olathe School District, an increase of nearly 500 percent since 2006-07. Statewide, homelessness reached 9,330 students, a 161 percent increase. That was considerably higher than the national average increase of 72 percent.
“Students in poverty tend not to eat as well or get as much medical care,” said Tammy Bartels of Tonganoxie, president of the Kansas PTA, who is familiar with the dire situation. “So it is difficult to sit down to read if you have an untreated toothache or if you’re hungry.”
Life will be bleak for many Kansas kids until the conservatives have a change of heart.