Since taking office in 2011, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has moved thousands off the state’s welfare rolls.
It did so chiefly by tightening the rules that determine when the poor can get help. The governor said he aims to break a cycle of dependence by coaxing more people into the workforce.
“We want to get people jobs,” Brownback said. “That’s the way out of poverty.”
But a recent report from a Johnson County social service agency questions whether the state is doing enough to help the poor find work — a conclusion the state robustly challenges.
The Brownback administration has, indeed, cut the welfare rolls by half with reforms lowering the lifetime cap on benefits and requiring applicants to look for work.
The number of Kansans on welfare plummeted to an average of 18,844 a month this year from 38,963 when Brownback took office.
About 75 percent of Kansas welfare applicants were turned down during fiscal year 2013, compared with about 63 percent in 2011, according to the report by United Community Services.
What’s in dispute is how much the administration is doing to help the poor get jobs once they get bumped from welfare.
The report looks at how Kansas spends the $102 million block grant it receives yearly from the federal government for welfare, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Kansas kicks in $87 million.
The report says that the state devotes 40 percent less welfare money to job training than it did in 2008, while holding $48 million in reserve in this year’s budget.
State policies “appear designed to reduce caseloads rather than to help families succeed,” the report states.
Brownback officials said the state has historically held as little as $15 million to the current $48 million in welfare funds in reserve.
Using data provided by the state, the report says that 1 in every 10 welfare cases was closed because recipients earned too much money. Five years ago, 1 in 3 cases was closed because the recipients made too much.
That suggests that few families are financially stable when they leave the welfare rolls, the report says.
State officials say they have programs that assess job skills and provide training. From January through November, 5,638 welfare recipients found jobs, a state spokesman said.
While acknowledging that less welfare money flows to job training, state officials argue they target spending and work with state agencies such as the Commerce Department to get people ready to work.
“There is a great deal of caring,” said Phyllis Gilmore, secretary for the Kansas Department of Children and Families. “I think we’re doing a great deal. What I am told is that every month more and more people are going to work.”
The United Community Services report said the agency found scant information about the outcome of employment services for welfare recipients.
UCS could not obtain details about the jobs for which training was offered, job placement rates or the median wages for the people who complete training.
“The lack of data concerning employment and training suggests (the state) does not have adequate information to design an effective training and employment program,” the report said.
Gilmore said that within the last year, the agency has fully staffed its employment services unit to aid job searches for the poor. Starting in July, welfare applicants were sent to the Commerce Department for skills assessment tests to determine job readiness.
From there, an applicant can be matched with a job or provided with training.
State officials noted that they have job-training partnerships with the Kansas Board of Regents and Johnson County Community College.
Brownback defended his policies as fair and argued that pushing the able-bodied to become independent ultimately helps them.
“I will certainly be willing to look at more efforts that we need to do to get people placed in jobs,” the governor said. “That’s our objective.”