10 March 2022 | Economic Security

Lawmakers consider more restrictions on those accessing family support programs

Emily Fetsch & Erin Melton 
Originally written Nov. 26, 2018 | Updated March 2022 

SB 501, a bill introduced this session, would increase administrative burden for Medicaid and food assistance program applicants and participants, as well as the government agencies that administer them. This bill would waste millions of Kansas taxpayer dollars, only to perpetuate stigma and misinformation about these programs and the people who use them.

The bill was requested for introduction by an organization with a history of pushing legislation harmful to working Kansas families. The Opportunity Solutions Project, a conservative lobbying organization based in Florida, is behind this 2022 bill and was the group who pushed template legislation in 2015 and 2016 that damaged anti-poverty programs in Kansas.

Kansans already face strict eligibility requirements to access to family support programs

Legislation passed in 2015 and 2016 was misleadingly named the HOPE (Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone) Act. These bills codified administrative changes that had begun in 2011 to increase barriers for families accessing anti-poverty programs. In summary, the legislation:

  • Shortened the amount of time a family can remain eligible for cash assistance. Federal law allows for five years of eligibility within a lifetime. Kansas reduced that to three years – and then further reduced it to just 24 months in the 2016 legislation.
  • Increased work requirements for pregnant women and mothers of infants receiving cash assistance. Federal law allows a new mother 12 months to care for her infant before she must meet the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements; the HOPE Act cuts that period for new Kansas mothers to three months.
  • Codified into law cross-program “sanctions,” revoking an entire family’s eligibility for multiple assistance programs after failure to follow administrative regulations and requirements.
  • Banned the Kansas Department for Children and Families (DCF) from requesting a waiver from the three-month time limit for childless adults in areas of very high unemployment.
  • Permanently banned Kansans with more than one drug-related felony conviction from receiving food assistance.
  • Made it mandatory that food assistance applicants cooperate with child support, which can be harmful for families with informal support arrangements and for single parents with an abusive non-custodial ex-partner.
  • Banned Kansas from pursuing broad-based categorical eligibility, a process that would make it easier for families to identify that they are eligible for food assistance.

As a result, Kansas has seen a continued decline in the number of children and families accessing anti-poverty programs, even though need has not decreased. This is particularly harmful now, as Kansans continue to face economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And because the HOPE Act in 2015 and 2016 wasn’t enough for Kansas lawmakers…

Not only is the 2022 Legislature failing to enact legislation that would improve outcomes for Kansas children and families, but they are also considering a bill that would make the food assistance program even more restricted and would bring Medicaid into the mix. SB 501 would:

  • Add reporting and verification requirements for program applicants and existing participants;
  • Require DCF to make a currently voluntary employment and training program mandatory for certain Kansans receiving food assistance; and
  • Mandate that DCF and KDHE enter data matching agreements with each other and four other state agencies to share, store, and review private data on all Kansans receiving food assistance and/or Medicaid, on a monthly to quarterly basis.

At first glance, these provisions may seem like technical changes. In reality, they would bury low-income, working families in paperwork at the risk of being kicked off these crucial support programs. It would also greatly expand government bureaucracy and add inefficiencies to these agencies that are already suffering from understaffing and underfunding. And taxpayers would foot the bill for these changes, with zero benefit for any Kansans. For children in low-income families, and for all Kansans who care about their state, the Legislature must oppose SB 501.

Food assistance case numbers continue to decline due to unnecessary restrictions

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called food assistance in Kansas, helps ensure that struggling families have enough to eat. SNAP has long been one of the nation’s most effective poverty-reduction programs.

Creating barriers to nutrition access through work requirements and other restrictions hurts Kansas children. In 2019, 17.1 percent of Kansas children lived in households that experienced the uncertainty or inability to have enough food in the previous year. The same year, only 71 percent of eligible Kansans were enrolled in the food assistance program. Several provisions in the HOPE Act excluded or risked the ability of parents to receive the same benefits as their children. When parents are unable to access food assistance, it reduces the entire household’s already low benefit amount and can even make entire households ineligible. This makes it harder for parents to ensure that their children have the nutrition they need to thrive. It also affects children’s development. Children whose families receive food assistance experience improved health and economic self-sufficiency over a lifetime.

Reduced access to child care assistance makes it harder for Kansas parents to work and attain self-sufficiency

Research shows that parents receiving child care assistance are more likely to have stable employment. Child care assistance is important, particularly for low-income children who benefit the most from high-quality early learning opportunities, which child care assistance makes more affordable. High-quality early learning improves test scores, reduces behavior problems, lowers rates of grade repetition, and improves long- term employment opportunities and earnings for children.

However, Kansas has seen a marked decline in families receiving child care assistance since the implementation of the HOPE Act’s restrictive provisions. Since then, there has been a reduction in the average monthly enrollment of children in the Kansas Child Care Assistance Program. That reduction doesn’t take into account the high number of eligible families who haven’t even applied for the program. The HOPE Act and previous agency administration cut off outreach for the program. The years’ long lack of outreach still affects the low enrollment in this transformative program for working parents.

This session, policymakers had the opportunity to pass legislation making it easier for families to find, afford, and benefit from early learning opportunities through HB 2525. Instead, Kansas lawmakers prioritized retaining the burdensome restrictions that make it difficult for parents to support their children and their communities.

Kansas has some of the most severe TANF limits of any state

In 2020, only 9 in 100 Kansas families with children in poverty received TANF benefits. This is a dramatic decline from 52 in 100 Kansas families in poverty who received TANF when the program started in 1996.

Research examining data on the employment and earnings of Kansas parents leaving TANF cash assistance between October 2011 and March 2015 indicates:

“The vast majority of these families worked before and after exiting TANF, but most found it difficult to find steady work and secure family-sustaining earnings. For those exiting due to work-related sanctions and time limits, TANF policies left these families with children without access to cash assistance that they could draw upon when they hit hard times.”

Families use TANF to cope with major life changes, including:

  • Losing a job;
  • Giving birth;
  • Fleeing domestic violence; or
  • Experiencing a serious medical issue.

Restricting TANF benefits hurts families’ economic stability, ability to plan for the future, and capacity to deal with unexpected events.

Recent study shows connection between restrictions and an increase in foster care

Restrictions that keep families from the support programs they need have implications beyond household economic stability. A study from the University of Kansas shows a troubling link between access to anti-poverty support programs and foster care placement. The research demonstrates that as restrictions increase for these programs, more Kansas children enter the foster care system. According to Donna Ginther, one of the two authors:

“It’s remarkable. There is a mirror image…As the Kansas TANF caseloads drop, the number of reports of abuse and neglect go up. And you see a similar relationship for foster care placements.”

Source: Donna Ginther and Michelle Johnson-Motoyama (Dec. 15, 2017). Do State TANF Policies Affect Child Abuse and Neglect? University of Kansas.  

Even more recently, pediatricians published research demonstrating that expanded access to support programs, including Medicaid, TANF, and child care assistance, is linked to reduction in child maltreatment, and thereby foster care program entry.

Kansas could be taking concrete steps to prevent damage to children and keep families together by getting rid of harmful barriers to access for food assistance, child care assistance, and TANF. But lawmakers continue to resist these positive changes and instead choose to make requirements for support programs more punitive. 

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