Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has often been fact-challenged. So its claim just before Election Day that poverty in Kansas had dropped by more than 2 percent attracted notice.
At least two news outlets, the Kansas Health Institute News Service and the Topeka Capital-Journal, have called out the false claim. The Department of Children and Families has acknowledged an error, though it hasn’t publicly corrected its news release from Oct. 20.
“We misread the report,” a spokeswoman told the Capital-Journal.
What the department misread was U.S. Census data, which showed the poverty rate in Kansas remaining essentially flat at 11.8 percent, compared with 11.5 percent the year before.
For children, the percentage is higher. Using census data from 2011 through 2013, the latest Kids Count report from Kansas Action for Children estimates 21 percent of children under age 19 are living below the federal poverty level. For the first time, over 50 percent of Kansas school children qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Brownback’s claim that he reduced the state’s welfare rolls by half in his first term is true. Enrollment in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is under 20,000 persons.
But that’s because Brownback made it much harder for families to obtain assistance. His administration contends it is helping families by steering parents into jobs instead of welfare. However, the fact that one of five children in Kansas lives in poverty suggests many of those jobs are low-paying and tenuous.
“Local service agencies are seeing more people trying to find ongoing assistance,” said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County.
But most service agencies aren’t designed to provide sustained assistance. And Brownback has reduced that kind of direct help from the state, funneling federal block grant funds that used to go directly to needy families into other services.
In early summer, Brownback told Kansans, “We’ll finish this year with several hundred millions of dollars cash on hand, so we’re going to be in fine shape.”
As we know, that was the biggest falsehood. A budget forecast announced last week showed that the governor and Legislature will have to cut $278 million by June 30 to finish in the black and more in the year after that.
Kansans at or near the poverty level have good reason to fear that their lot will become even harder. Brownback’s concept of helping the poor has always involved cutting their services. That is likely to accelerate.