By Melissa Hellmann
May 1, 2016

The Kansas House debated a health bill Sunday that would make changes to eligibility for public assistance that supporters say will help reduce poverty but critics argue will rob poor children of basic essentials.

Representatives voted 69-52 against the measure, sending the bill to a conference committee where lawmakers will consider changes.

The bill would reduce the lifetime limit on cash assistance from 36 to 24 months, though the state can grant an extension up to 12 months. The Department of Children and Families also would be required to monitor welfare recipients who repeatedly replace benefit cards. Winners of lotteries over $5,000 would be investigated by the state to determine their eligibility for public assistance.

Each able-bodied household member receiving cash assistance would be required to work, participate in a job training program or search for work. However, mothers of newborn babies would be exempted from the work requirement for up to 3 months.

The identity of all adults in a household receiving assistance would be verified by DCF under the bill. Currently, only the adults who are enrolled as the head of the case are verified by the state.

The changes in public assistance eligibility are a continuation of the 2015 HOPE Act, a law designed to move families off welfare and into the workforce. In 2014 before the program began, about 17,700 residents were receiving temporary cash assistance a month, most of them children. By March 2016 the number dropped to about 12,800, according to DCF.

Wichita Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell, Chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said that the state’s welfare reform has revealed “incredible results.”

“The best way out of poverty is a good education and a job,” O’Donnell said, adding that the state would partner with community colleges and technical schools to provide training under the reform. “Once they’re off of welfare and they have a job, then they’re paying taxes into the whole system and they’re going to have a higher quality of life with additional pay.”

But Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, argued that parents who are trying to better their lives through education should still have access to public assistance that allows them to provide their family with basic necessities.

“Achieving a higher level of education or vocational training takes time for families, particularly those that are struggling with the daily demands of living in poverty, so that’s going to be a long-term fix,” Cotsoradis said. “In the meantime we need to make sure that those kids have a place to sleep, shoes on their feet, food to eat and diapers.”

Cotsoradis said that the reduction in lifetime limits for public assistance could leave children hungry and homeless. The state has decreased the amount of children on cash assistance it serves monthly by over 60 percent since 2007. But at the same time, the childhood poverty rate has increased by 20 percent, Cotsoradis said.

Read more from the Associated Press.