SBR: Welfare Reform: Have changes helped or hurt Kansas students?

By Scott Rothschild, srothschild@kasb.org

While the Legislature waits for the results of a school finance study, which is due March 15, some legislators are working on related issues that could have a big impact on thousands of low-income Kansas students.

Poverty Up in Kansas Schools: In 2015-16, 48.6 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch as compared with 42.7 percent in 2008-09. In 2015-16, there were 9,265 homeless children attending Kansas public schools as compared with 6,700 in 2008-09.

Some recent studies are casting doubt on the effectiveness of changes in the state welfare system that were approved by former Gov. Sam Brownback and his Republican allies in the Legislature from 2011-15.

These changes included reducing the amount of time a person can receive benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and placing more restrictions that make it easier to disqualify families receiving the cash assistance.

Supporters of these changes say they encouraged more people to get jobs, lifted them out of poverty and built their self-esteem.

Fewer cases, more abuse

The TANF caseload has plummeted from 13,104 in October 2011 to 5,231 in October 2016.

But a recent study by researchers at the University of Kansas says there is a dark flip side to these changes.

Child abuse and the number of children placed in foster care has increased as the changes in TANF took effect, they say.

“Restrictions on access to the safety net appear to have unintended consequences with regard to human costs and costs to taxpayers,” said Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, one of the authors of the study.

And the researchers say the increase in abuse and foster care placements is related to the removal of families from TANF or the increasing barriers in getting the assistance.

When families are under economic distress, oftentimes parenting problems follow in addition to depression and other disruptions, they say.
In discussions with school officials across the state last year, educators often noted that more of their students faced deteriorating family situations, which led to behavioral issues in the classroom.

Officials with the Kansas Department for Children and Families disagree that the changes to TANF have hurt children. They have noted there are states with more generous TANF limits that have also seen an increase in children needing care. And they say DCF has put together support services to help parents transition into work.

But another study, this one by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, showed that the vast majority of Kansas families leaving TANF did not find steady work and remained in poverty. And other studies show few families eligible for childcare assistance actually receive that assistance.

While policymakers debate the causes of increases in child abuse, what can’t be debated is that an increase has occurred.

Since fiscal year 2010, Kansas has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of child abuse and neglect reports, a 35 percent increase in reports screened as needing an investigation and of those investigated, a 51 percent increase in the rate of substantiation, according to the Kansas Children’s Service League.

These increases result in increased costs in education, health care and justice and corrections.

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