Lawmakers Advance Kansas Welfare Reform Bill

By John Celock

Kansas lawmakers advanced legislation Wednesday that would overhaul the state’s welfare laws including placing lifetime caps on assistance and new rules on how the assistance can be used.

The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee passed a bill that would codify many of the changes Gov. Sam Brownback (R) placed into the welfare rules by regulation since taking office in 2011. In addition, the committee passed a series of amendments that would among other things reduce how much cash can be obtained from an ATM from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families card.

“In doing all this we created a focused program that helps out truly needy individuals and eliminates the lifestyle of being on assistance,” state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report. “Previously you could be temporary assistance for five years in the state of Kansas. That is feeding into a lifestyle rather than a truly temporary need for assistance.”

Among the issues being advanced in the changes is a lifetime cap of up to four years on TANF. The fourth year would require a hardship to be proved. Federal regulations allow a state to offer up to five years. Other changes being codified in the bill involve access and eligibility for TANF. Brownback has been pushing a series of changes to TANF in the state including a 2013 law that requires drug testing for those receiving welfare benefits.

Democrats are opposing the changes, saying that Brownback is “punishing poor people.” Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) told The Celock Report that his city is seeing a rise in unemployment and low wage jobs, which would not be helped by the bill.

“The same people doing these restrictions are the same people won’t debate raising the minimum wage so people don’t need financial assistance,” Ward said.

Over the two days of committee discussion, Claeys and Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) successfully offered a series of amendments to the bill. Claeys said the amendments were part of an effort by the pair to overhaul the entire system.

“What we really did with the amendments are things that truly reform the system,” Claeys said. “This went from codification to really significant welfare reform. That is what Representative Couture-Lovelady and myself looked to do.”

Among the amendments offered by Couture-Lovelady were ones to prohibit using TANF on a series of items including tattoos, body piercings, strip clubs and vacations, along with requiring a photo to be placed on a TANF benefits card and to allow those who have been convicted of a drug crime to receive TANF if they enroll in a drug treatment program and submit to drug testing.

Couture-Lovelady told The Celock Report that he wanted to make sure the TANF funds were being used for families as assistance.

“I introduced the bill in Fed and State for the Department of Children and Families earlier this session,” Couture-Lovelady said. “I believe TANF is supposed to be a bridge from welfare to work. Returning to work should be the ultimate goal. The more we can do to make sure the money is used appropriately the more resources there will be available for those that really need the help.”

Under the terms of the photo on the card, Claeys noted that there is a need to protect the use of the cards for those who are issued them. In addition he said it could be used for other purposes, including as a voter identification card in Kansas.

Claeys said that he did not think that there is a problem with people using TANF to go on Caribbean cruises but said he wanted to make sure the funds are for legitimate purposes.

“These are taxpayer dollars. People truly in a desperate situation and have a need to feed their families and basic survival, those things are not necessary for survival,” Claeys said of body piercings and cruises. “Those are extras that individuals truly in need are likely to go without. This is the lifestyle of welfare versus someone truly in need using the system for its intended purpose.”

Ward said that he agrees with the idea of not using the funds for strip clubs or tattoos but said that placing the ban into law would have a negative impact in the state.

“I don’t think the vast majority of the people take temporary assistance or food stamps is using this to go to tattoo parlors or strip clubs,” he said. “Of course no one wants to use it for that. But to take the outlier is to give a negative connotation to those in low wage jobs.”

According to welfare fraud data provided to the committee by the Department of Children and Families, state courts in fiscal year 2014 handed down 188 fraud judgments relating to TANF. The data showed that 81 TANF related fraud judgments were handed down between July and late February in fiscal year 2015. In addition, several hundred fraud judgments were handed down for other types of public assistance including childcare, food and medical.

DCF stressed the numbers are only for those who receive a court judgment following a fraud investigation of violated eligibility rules.

Claeys’ amendment would place limits on how much can be withdrawn from a TANF account on an ATM to $60 and ATM withdrawals can only be made once a day. He said the main concern is TANF recipients who withdraw the money to spend it on items that TANF cannot be used on currently.

Claeys said that under his amendment an individual can still use the card to obtain a money order for the payment of rent or other bills.

“In the larger scheme of things this bill cracks down on the liquidation. That is what I was really concerned with,” he said. “The amount being taken out in cash and being taken out of the card really concerned me. It is one thing to turn into cash to pay your rent or electric bill. It is another to go to the ATM and getting cash to do an end run on what you can’t purchase with the card.”

Ward said that he believes Claeys’ amendment is “micromanaging families.” Stressing that he believes that there are things that TANF should not be used on, he said that the state should not be micromanaging daily. He said that families on TANF should be helped out of low wage jobs and that the program should provide more.

Ward noted that the TANF assistance provides for rent and other needs for those in low wage jobs. He also said that he wants to see an increase in childcare access in order to help those in low wage jobs.

Claeys stressed that he believes that those on TANF and other welfare programs are using it for the right reasons. He said the amended bill will help achieve this in Kansas.

“Ninety nine percent of the people who are using this are using it for its intended purpose,” Claeys said. “This is to root out those who are abusing it. If you are using cash assistance to go on a cruise your priorities are out of whack.”