Government & Politics

Kansas and Missouri move to tighten welfare rules

Gov. Sam Brownback signed a welfare reform bill into law Thursday in Topeka. The law reduces the time a person can receive benefits and bans certain types of spending.
Gov. Sam Brownback signed a welfare reform bill into law Thursday in Topeka. The law reduces the time a person can receive benefits and bans certain types of spending. The Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas signed into law new limitations on welfare eligibility and benefits Thursday, while Missouri legislators gave their final approval to a set of restrictions of their own.

The Kansas bill establishes stricter requirements for welfare eligibility, sets shorter time limits for how long a person can receive benefits and places new rules on where people can spend welfare money.

Brownback and his secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Phyllis Gilmore, touted the changes as a way to promote self-reliance and lift people out of poverty by pushing them back into the workforce.

“We encourage other states to look to Kansas on how to help end government dependency,” Gillmore said.

The policies aim to help low-income people achieve self-sufficiency, she said, adding that government dependency is a “disservice to the individual, a disservice to our culture and certainly a disservice to the taxpayer.”

The law enacts several policies adopted during Brownback’s first term, including a requirement that able-bodied adults work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through a job training program to qualify for the federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. He credits this policy with putting more than 6,000 people back into the workforce last year.

But the features of the law that drew national attention are the policies that were tacked on by the Legislature — to the noticeable frustration of Brownback and Gilmore. They include a ban on spending TANF money at a wide variety of businesses, including movie theaters, massage parlors, cruise ships and swimming pools.

“The primary focus of the bill is to get people back to work,” Brownback said. “Because that’s where the real benefit is, getting people off public assistance and back into the marketplace with the dignity and far more income there than the pittance that government gives them.”

Brownback said employment is one of the main factors in lifting a person out of poverty. He added that family structure is the most important factor.

Yet some elements of the bill have drawn criticism for being anti-family. If a person is found to be committing benefits fraud, both that person and other adults living in the same home will receive a lifetime ban from receiving public assistance dollars.

Critics say that provision will penalize people for being married if one spouse abuses the system without the other’s knowledge.

“It’s always been hard to be poor in Kansas,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children. “Now it’s going to be a lot harder.”

In Missouri, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that lowers the lifetime limit for how long families can stay on TANF from five years to three years and nine months.

If the bill becomes law, nearly 9,500 people — 6,300 of whom are children — will lose their access to benefits.

The bill also implements stricter work requirements for TANF and food stamps and calls for families to meet with a state social worker in person when they sign up for benefits.

Savings from the changes would be redirected to help pay for other safety net programs, such as child care assistance or job training. However, the Missouri House added provisions that dedicated 2 percent of TANF funds to alternatives to abortion services and awareness programs, as well as 2 percent for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood promotion.

“Our goal is to set a path to work, where people are more motivated to go to work than to stay on welfare,” said House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican.

Critics of the legislation, however, say those who reach the lifetime limits typically face significant barriers to employment, such as lack of education, unstable housing or mental and physical health problems.

A 2013 study by the University of Maine found that families kicked off TANF because of exceeding lifetime benefits in that state experienced increased reliance on food banks, inability to pay utility and other bills, and overcrowded housing conditions or reliance on homeless shelters.

“Our state should be protecting low-income children — not cutting holes in the social safety net and watching the kids fall through,” said Missouri Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat.

The Missouri income guidelines for benefit recipients haven’t been updated since 1993. A family of three can earn no more than $846 a month in salary to receive $292 a month in benefits.

The average amount of monthly benefits is about $230 per family.

The Missouri legislation now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. It passed both the House and Senate with enough support to override a veto.

The new Kansas law

▪ Sets a 36-month lifetime limit for a person to receive welfare.

▪ Requires able-bodied adults to work 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a job training program to qualify for benefits.

▪ Limits welfare recipients to withdrawing $25 from an ATM in a day using their Electronic Benefits Transfer card.

▪ Restricts people from spending assistance dollars at sporting events, liquor stores, casinos, jewelry stores, tattoo and piercing parlors, nail salons, massage parlors, lingerie shops, horse or dog racing facilities, swimming pools, movie theaters, video arcades, bail bond companies, cruise ships and sexually oriented businesses.

▪ Suspends a person from receiving benefits if he or she tests positive for drugs. Children living in the home would still be eligible for benefits that would go through a designated payee, such as a relative or neighbor.

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