By Jason Probst
April 16, 2016

The Brownback administration and the Department for Children and Families have touted the benefits of welfare-to-work legislation that has reduced the number of families that rely on public assistance, such as food stamps and cash assistance.

And there is no question that fewer people are using assistance today. The number of families on welfare had been declining since 2005 – until the numbers surged upward during the 2008 recession – but has seen drops in the years since. In 2005, 17,118 families with 30,321 children received temporary assistance. So far in 2016, there are only 5,506 families and 9,630 children.

To hear Brownback and DCF officials tell it, the reason is that all those families have found meaningful and gainful employment. They’ve freed themselves from the shackles of public assistance, and have seen the healing light of work.

That’s a simple and easy explanation that supports the ideology of the governor’s office, but the number of children who remain in poverty tells another story: An alarming, and growing, number of children remain in poverty.

According to Kansas Action for Children, in 2007, before the recession, about 26,633 children received cash assistance monthly. By 2015 that number was down to 11,038, and so far in 2016 only 8,506 Kansas kids had access to cash assistance. And while some of that decrease can no doubt be attributed to newfound work among Kansas poorest residents, the data – along with our own observations – tell us that’s not the case for all.

Since 2007, the childhood poverty rate has grown by 20 percent. There’s been a 66 percent increase in repeat visits to food pantries. More than 54,000 Kansas kids live in deep poverty – meaning their family of three makes less than $10,000 a year.

If the numbers aren’t convincing, take a look around your town, or go visit a school filled with a mix of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. There’s a good chance you’re not going to see fewer kids in need of assistance.

And while there’s a debate to be had about how best to accomplish the universal goal of reducing the number of families and children who need welfare to get by, there can be no debate about the ravages of poverty on a child’s development.

These policies are debated in terms of numbers, in terms of outcomes and in terms of political ideology. But under all of that are the people affected by the decisions that are made by people in Topeka, who most likely have never struggled to pay their bills or put food on their tables.

No child is born with the dream of being poor, of being trapped on welfare, of struggling to find work, or asking for help to buy food. And children don’t get to pick their mothers or their stations in life; if they could they wouldn’t condemn themselves to a life of poverty.

Efforts to break the cycle of generational poverty and to create opportunities for poor Kansans to find financial independence are worthwhile and needed. But policies that take food from a child’s plate, or hinder a family’s ability to provide a child with a safe place to live erode the likelihood that those children will ever break free from the bonds of poverty. They grow, and develop, in an environment based on survival, not growth or opportunity.

Any investment needs care and attention to grow and reach its true potential. A home without paint decays, a car without maintenance falls into disrepair. A child without nutrition, safety, education and opportunity is not so different at all.

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