May 17, 2016

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback touted the welfare limits he signed into law Monday as a way to free recipients from the grip of poverty, but critics argued some families could be left without a safety net during financial difficulties.

The changes in public assistance eligibility are a continuation of the 2015 HOPE Act, a law designed to move families off of welfare and into the workforce. The new law will reduce the lifetime limit on cash assistance from 36 to 24 months, although the state can grant an extension of up to 12 months.

The reduction is expected to take about 424 households off assistance in the next year, according to the administration. About 4,400 households receive assistance now.

Able-bodied recipients of food assistance would be required to keep their jobs, provided they’re at least 30 hours a week, or participate in an employment or training program. A first-time violation of the requirements results in a three-month ineligibility. The penalty increases to six months for a second-time offense and one year for subsequent violations until the work requirements are met.

However, caretakers of newborn babies will be exempted from a work requirement to receive cash benefits for up to three months, unless one adult in the plan has already reached the lifetime limit.

“It’s helped people get out of poverty, it’s helped people have more income and in some cases it’s helped people get back their dignity to get back into the labor force,” Brownback said about the welfare reform measures during a press conference Monday.

He referenced a February report from the conservative research group Foundation for Government Accountability that found able-bodied Kansans experienced a 127 percent rise in their income within a year of leaving the food assistance program.

Within the next year, the administration also estimates that about 9 percent of the roughly 4,900 households receiving cash assistance will become ineligible to receive benefits because they have reached the two-year limit.

“It’s necessary to decrease lifetime limit to encourage people to get back into the game,” Brownback said.

But critics fear that restrictions on public assistance have only lightened the welfare roll without reducing poverty levels. The state has decreased the amount of children on cash assistance it serves by over 60 percent since 2007, according to the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children. Yet the childhood poverty rate has increased by 20 percent.

Reported child homelessness has risen since 2007, and at the same time fewer children are participating in the state’s cash assistance program.

The number of children receiving cash assistance has fallen from more than 25,000 in 2007 to a few more than 10,000 in 2015.

“For six years, Governor Brownback has declared a commitment to reducing childhood poverty, which makes it to difficult to reconcile this policy decision,” KAC president and CEO Shannon Cotsoradis said.

Read more from the Associated Press.