A gap between word and deed on poverty
As a candidate for governor in 2010, Sam Brownback raised the hopes of Kansans concerned with the plight of the state's poorest residents when he indicated that his "roadmap for Kansas" would address childhood poverty, as one of his top five priorities. He stated specifically that as governor his administration should be assessed on its performance in decreasing "the percentage of Kansas' children who live in poverty."
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of Kansas children living in poverty reached a high of 134,000 in 2011, Gov. Brownback's first year in office. That number represents 19 percent of all Kansas children, also a high. Data for 2012 are expected in a few weeks.
Campaign rhetoric, however, has been pushed aside as Brownback and his administration take steps to unravel the safety net for low-income Kansans, particularly children. Specifics include:
* Cutting 15,000 of the poorest Kansans, including 9,000 children, from public assistance;
* Removing 4,000 children of low-income, working mothers from access to child care;
* Eliminating a child and dependent tax credit for 60,000 lower-income families;
* Abolishing a property tax refund for low-income renters;
* Reducing the rebate for sales taxes on food for low-income Kansans;
* Reducing children's access to treatment for mental illness;
* Resisting the extension of health care through Medicaid to 150,000 low-income Kansans; and
* Shifting the tax burden onto lower-income Kansans through increases in sales and property taxes.
In light of these actions, the final report of Brownback's task force on childhood poverty issued last week had a hollow ring. With only three meetings over the past year, the task force offered three primary recommendations.
The lead recommendation was education: improving high school graduation rates, entry into postsecondary education, and fourth-grade reading levels. Nothing new here.
Most Kansas educators would say they work on these goals every day but also might ask what the task force said about funding. The report sidestepped funding, ignoring that spending for elementary and secondary education has fallen by more than $900 per student, 2008 to 2014, when adjusted for inflation. Or that college and university funding is being cut by $33 million in the next two years. The Kansas Legislature also derailed Brownback's legislative proposal on reading improvement.
The task force's second recommendation was to increase employment, essentially by improving governmental programs designed to get the unemployed into jobs and making work a requirement for public assistance. Brownback echoed the task force report with "let's push people into work."
However, neither Brownback nor his task force acknowledges that the lackluster economy represents a huge barrier to employment. According to the Federal Reserve, the Kansas economy still is performing at a level below that of June 2008, when the Great Recession began. While 1.4 million Kansans were employed in July, that number exceeds the number working in January 2011 by only 2,200, according to Kansas Department of Labor data. In other words, growth in employment during Brownback's two and a half years in office equates to a small fraction of 1 percent. And nearly 90,000 Kansans remain unemployed.
One has to ask: where will unemployed Kansans find work?
The final recommendation of the task force does chart a new direction by proposing to promote marriage, including a public relations campaign on the benefits of marriage and fatherhood, a "healthy relationship" curriculum in schools, and financial incentives for "premarital education."
Should Kansans now expect Brownback to establish a new department of marriage in state government?
In spite of the words in Brownback's roadmap on childhood poverty, poor Kansas families, most particularly children, face a rough road in the days ahead.
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.