Why I shouldn’t read my legislative email in the morning

So, I got this email from someone at the Kansas Department of Children and Families.

“New Report Shows Kansas Welfare-to-Work Policies Effective”

It basically explained how the cuts Gov. Sam Brownback put in place further restricting access to the state’s assistance programs have been hugely successful. At the end of the email, it offers this little nugget of evidence: “Since January 2011, Kansas TANF clients have reported 43,046 new employments. In April 2017, their average hourly wage was $10.05. There are currently 11,139 Kansans receiving TANF, down from 38,963 in 2011.”

It also links to the original report, done by the Foundation for Government Accountability, with the assistance of DCF, who proudly shared the source material with the FGA.

There’s also a link to a document that shows what has happened with various TANF (temporary aid for needy families) over the years. It’s worth taking a look at. Here were some interesting things I pulled from it:

  • The average cost per TANF case is $255 a month.
  • In 1997, the monthly number of people on TANF was 57,762. It dropped steadily until 2010 – shortly after the bottom fell out of the economy in 2007-08. It was 31,828 in 2009 and 36,972 in 2010. Today it is down to 11,139, so DCF’s statement on numbers is accurate. Brownback’s measures did work to reduce the number of people on welfare.
  • Food assistance demand (SNAP) has trended upward in recent years. In 1997, 156,657 people needed food assistance. That dropped to around 117,000 in 2000, before rising again in 2001. It steadily climbed to a peak of 316,424 in 2013, before falling to 239,592 in 2017.

I also looked through the report from FGA.

The first thing I realized is that the FGA isn’t a reliable source of information and it shouldn’t be passed off as such. It is seemingly an outreach of – or at least largely staffed by people connected to the Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank that has branches in nearly every state, and which has ties to all the people you already know want to use their money to influence government and the public.

If I couldn’t tell that on the surface, or from visiting the “about us” page on FGA’s website, I could learn it by reading the language of the report. Here are a few excerpts. The text in bold is language that would never be found in a valid, neutral, evidence-based report.

“After taking office in 2011, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback implemented some of the boldest welfare reforms in the nation in an effort to reduce dependency and help struggling families get back on their feet. These reforms include commonsense work requirements, smarter sanction policies, lower time limits, and stronger child support provisions, to name a few.”

In the years immediately following federal welfare reform, Kansas’ welfare story mostly mirrored what was happening elsewhere around the country. By 2000, enrollment in Kansas’ cash
welfare program had dropped by more than 60 percent. The number of able-bodied adults dependent on cash assistance had dropped by nearly two-thirds. But then the trend began to reverse. Between 2000 and 2011, Kansas’ cash welfare enrollment rose by nearly 22 percent compared to a 27 percent decline nationally. Worse yet, while the number of able-bodied adults on cash welfare dropped by nearly a third nationally over that same time period, it increased by more than 42 percent in Kansas. What changed?

Then-governor Kathleen Sebelius – who would go on to push for massive welfare expansions in the Obama administration – eased sanctions for able-bodied adults on TANF who refused to work, train, or search for employment, among other changes. Under the new policy, there was no minimum sanction period, allowing able-bodied adults to resume receiving benefits
within days or weeks of removal. This created a revolving door where individuals could obtain a job, enroll in TANF, and then quit their job until their next eligibility review. As a result, the work
participation rate plummeted and enrollment soared. When Gov. Sam Brownback took office, he had his work cut out for him. Thankfully, he did not shy away from the challenges facing the state but relentlessly pursued welfare reforms that have improved Kansans’ lives.

So….

It is true that Brownback’s policies on TANF and SNAP have reduced the number of people receiving assistance. That is irrefutable. What isn’t clear is the effect that has had on families and children. It isn’t clear what the real average wage is among those who have been pushed off assistance. With an average wage of $10.05 an hour, I have no idea if that is based on a few high earners skewing the average upward, or of that’s an average that reaches the broader population. I don’t know what kind of jobs they’re working. I don’t know if they’re working multiple jobs. I don’t know if those people are truly independent, or if they’ve just looked to other, more local, sources of assistance.

But I do know that the median household income in Kansas is around $50,000, which translates to roughly $24 an hour. I know the poverty level for a family of four is $24,600, which translates to $11.82 an hour. So I’m not sure we should be crowing about the fact that we’ve pushed a bunch of people to a wage that is well below the poverty level.

I have asked DCF for the original information that was shared with FGA, particularly the information about the people they tracked after leaving TANF so I can see for myself what the spread of wages might be. The information might bear out FGA’s claims, or it might not. But I’d like to see for myself instead of seeing it through the Heritage Foundation filter. I don’t trust information from organizations that are in the business of moving government to a certain ideology – and neither should you. It’s not inherently bad to believe in the value of work, in promoting the idea that moving people from a lifetime of welfare to a more sustainable and prosperous model. But information like this report from FGA is slanted, and its sole purpose is to promote a particular philosophy about government. We need better information than that to see beyond the numbers and know if those policies are actually helping, or hurting, families in Kansas. And we have to ask more questions to know if those application of those policies truly sets up people for a better future.

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