Kansas Welfare Recipients Get Six Month Reprieve

June 2nd 2015

Sarah Gray

Three-hundred and fifty families in Kansas won't be losing their welfare...for now.

These families received a six-month reprieve after they had initially been told that payments from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program were scheduled to end on July 1, 2015. The families' benefits are endangered by new legislation, which currently prevents welfare recipients from going to swimming pools and movies. Last week, however, the Kansas Department for Children and Families announced that it would not drop the 350 families, which includes 700 children. The families will now stay on until January 1, 2016.

The families were in danger of losing their TANF benefits after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed strict, new regulations into law. Along with limiting the amount of money that can be withdrawn from an ATM to $25 per day and banning the use of TANF benefits at movie theaters, swimming pools, and cruise ships, the bill reduced the number of months people could receive temporary benefits -- slashing it from 48 months to 36. The 350 families, who were scheduled to lose their benefits on July 1, are at the 36-month mark. There is no reprieve, however, for those who cross the 48-month mark on July 1. They will be cut from the program and no longer receive TANF benefits.

“It is our goal to help individuals adjust to this new policy by working closely with them during the transition period to assess their situation, address their circumstances and achieve self-sufficiency before they exhaust their TANF eligibility,” DFC spokeswoman Theresa Freed told KCUR in an email.

"Self-sufficiency" is the goal behind the harsh TANF restrictions, according to some Kansas politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R), who hopes the reform will push people into the workforce and also show “compassion to those who have fallen on hard times."

Myths about welfare contribute to these types of laws.

Another driver of this bill was the myth that those on welfare are using benefits to purchase luxuries like steak, lobster, and cruise tickets.

In reality, these restrictions criminalize, stigmatize, and otherwise inconvenience the poor, rather than streamline government spending. Can you imagine being barred from a swimming pool because of your income? Or having to find your way to an ATM (which probably has a fee) to pull out $25 to save up to pay rent? Or to save up to make a car payment?

And the restrictions have low-income families worried.

"Our lowest income citizens don’t necessarily have vehicles and use public transportation to get social services or pay bills," Allison Marker, a development director at a homeless shelter in Lawrence, Kan., told the Topeka-Capital Journal. "It seems that this wasn’t fully thought through in terms of helping. The past six months has seen a 16-percent increase in the Lawrence homeless population."

In 2014, around 17,600 people received TANF, according to the Topeka-Capital Journal, and the number of people receiving benefits is down from 38,000 back in 2011 (when Gov. Brownback took office). According to the organization Kansas Action for Children, childhood poverty has increased 22 percent during this same stretch of time.

On average, Kansas TANF benefit recipients receive $111 per person, per month, according to KCUR. To qualify for TANF benefits, you must be below 26 percent of the federal poverty level (which means you're bringing in less than $435 a month for a family of three).

Those who lose their TANF benefits in Kansas will still be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) or food stamps, but the loss of TANF benefits is still difficult.

"These changes are going to hurt a lot of people," Belinda Parks told the Topeka-Capital Journal. "I wouldn’t be able to survive without welfare. Even if you make minimum wage these days, you can’t afford to pay your rent and eat." Parks, who has a 12-year-old daughter, just lost her job cleaning hotel rooms.

Advocates like Jeanette Collier, who runs the Northeast Kansas Community Action Program (NEK-CAP), an anti-poverty program ​that serves 20 counties, are worried that six months won't be enough time for many to get back on their feet, especially without community programs to help people get fed and housed.

“I know there’s a mindset out there that says 36 months (lifetime limit) is plenty long enough for people to get their acts together,” Collier told KCUR in May. “And for some people it is. But for the people who are going to be affected by this, it’s not.”​