Analysis: Mistaken Facts/Lack of Substance Cloud Kansas Welfare Debate

By John Celock

The national debate over the Kansas welfare bill could have been one of substance over welfare and state regulation. Sadly, a combination of mistaken facts coming up regularly and a focus on a catchy part of the bill rather the entire bill has clouded the entire debate.

Whether or not you like the Kansas bill, the legislation takes on a whole series of welfare reform proposals including a three year lifetime cap with an optional fourth year, a $25 daily cap on ATM withdrawals, requiring mothers on welfare to go back to work three months after giving birth, new rules allowing those with drug convictions to receive benefits with certain conditions and limits on where benefits can be used. At the same time the Missouri Legislature is considering similar legislation including a debate over either a 30-month lifetime limit or a four-year one and a bill that would not allow the purchase of steak or seafood with benefits. All of this is a pretty substantial policy proposal that could lead to a very informed debate, which is not happening.

The lack of this debate is combined in two things. The first is the large amount of concrete facts that are going around about these proposals and the debate and two a focus solely on the provisions of the bill that would ban the use of benefits at such places as cruise ships, tattoo stores, swimming pools, movie theaters, lingerie shops and theme parks. The amount of mistakes surrounding this debate and the news coverage has led to confusion and the focus on the catchy part of the bill has denied the chance for a substantial debate.

All of this can be summed up in an editorial from late last week in the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, on the Kansas bill. Yes, apparently a newspaper in New Jersey has decided that they want to comment on Kansas’ internal affairs.

The Star-Ledger editorial, which opposes the bill, contains a serious error. The editorial says that Kansas is looking to ban the spending of benefits on cruise ships and also ban the purchase of steak and seafood with benefits and then uses both to oppose the policies of Gov. Sam Brownback (R). Unfortunately for the Star-Ledger, the steak and seafood bill is a Missouri bill not a Kansas one. This just provides yet another way for a reader of this editorial to get a mistaken view of the bill and also not have the ability to know all of the provisions and then make a decision, not just on one provision.

This is not the only mistake out there. The Huffington Post kicked it off earlier this month with an article that at first said that the bill would limit those on welfare to $25 a day in benefits instead of a $25 per day ATM withdrawal. They did correct the story but the Rachel Maddow Blog on had a post that quoted the mistaken HuffPost story for a day.

Now reports are that the Daily Show managed to make a mistake relating to the bill as well. Joseph Ashby used his radio show on KQAM in Wichita this to say that Jon Stewart’s claim that Kansas was a top recipient of federal funds is wrong. A survey from ranks Kansas as the fifth least state for federal aid in 2015.

Now reporters do make mistakes, most of the time these are fairly minor mistakes, either typos or something else fairly minor in scale and usually minor to the overall story. But the lack of fact checking on this one bill is just weird. It is like everyone is so quick to rush to put something out that no one is checking recent facts or bothering to read the bill. This is a huge problem and one that hinders a substantial and informed debate on welfare policy.

The second is the near obsession with the section that involves not using benefits on cruise ships, pools, movie theaters, lingerie shops, etc. This kicked off with the HuffPost story which made this the center piece and other media outlets, along with progressive groups, decided to focus on this one section rather than reading the entire bill and kicking off a debate on the many provisions. Yes, the cruise ship aspect can generate a headline and a graphic and will draw in readers, but to focus almost exclusively on this and on nothing else in the bill is a substantial disservice to the American public.

Why the focus has been on this I can’t tell you, that’s up to the publications that have made it the one exclusive focus. Maybe it is because it is just focusing on what everyone else is talking about, maybe it’s because it’s catchy, maybe it’s politics, that’s up to them to decide. I can say my focus in writing about this bill has been looking at the overall bill and not one part. I can also say there have been other outlets that have done this before the bill was passed by lawmakers.

First it says that the media is not doing its job. It is not actually reading the bill or looking at other reports on the subject and it is not providing all of the information. The media’s job is to provide the facts and let the reader make up their own minds. And in this case many people reading these stories are only making up their minds on one aspect of the bill and not the others. This could be the time for a substantial debate and we can’t have it. Sadly a desire to focus on sensationalizing the story (which includes writing about one part) is dominating the discourse.

This is happening even in the television debates as well. Chris Hayes from MSNBC had Kansas state Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R-Wichita) on to discuss the bill and the take away from the interview was Hayes interrupting O’Donnell. Now yes, MSNBC and Hayes slant left while O’Donnell slants right. But Hayes is doing a major disservice to his audience to not let O’Donnell answer a question but rather has to deal with interruptions. At least let the audience hear all of O’Donnell’s answer first and then let them oppose O’Donnell.

Now you might ask why should there be a national debate over one state’s welfare bill. Well that’s because states look to each other for ideas and with a growth in groups that share state based legislation across the board, what happened in Kansas can easily happen in another state. State government is where the action is and it is the media’s job to correctly show this information.

This is happening in Missouri right now where lawmakers are debating a welfare bill similar to Kansas but with new provisions. Missouri adopting similar rules could lead to more states and soon what is in two states could be common in more states. In fact the cruise ship ban that everyone is focusing on is already banned in several other states as well, including those that had Democratic governors sign it.

I reached out to Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D-St. Louis) about the bill in her state in order to provide comment on this story. She is opposed to the bill, citing the impact it can have on the poor.

“Restricting Missouri’s poor access to federal TANF funds is based on pure meanness and utter discrimination. Those affected are the poorest of the poor, including the elderly, disabled and even veterans,” Newman said. “Those who would be penalized the most are children. Once again, the Missouri GOP proves how heartless and indifferent they are to those who are severely disadvantaged.”

At the same time I also provided Kansas state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who helped craft the Kansas bill, the chance to comment on these mistakes in the media around the country. He defended the bill and the provisions regarding cruise ships and other spots to use benefits and explained why.

“Why would the leftist media let facts get in the way of their narrative? They never have before. I’m encouraged that they take the indefensible position that taxpayer’s hard earned dollars should be given to someone else to get a free tattoo or go on a cruise. The fact is, these are sensible restrictions that protect taxpayers and encourage recipients to complete the work program to get back into the work force,” Claeys said. “Individuals who have a job can get all the tattoos and go on all the cruises they want, but when you are accepting taxpayer dollars to lift yourself out of poverty, each of those dollars need to go toward that goal. Tattoos do not get you out of poverty. Spending money at strip clubs does not lift you out of poverty. Going to a water park does not lift you out of poverty. However, buying groceries, paying rent, and attending the Partners 4 Success program to get back into the workforce lifts you out of poverty.”

Now I also want to comment on the Star-Ledger inserting itself into Kansas politics. While I just said that it is important for states to look at each other and it is important for residents to know what is going on in various state governments, it is funny to see a New Jersey newspaper deciding to comment on a Kansas bill. If it were on the Missouri and Kansas bills, I could see it. If it were on the overall state-based welfare model, I could see it, but on one particular state halfway across the country, I don’t. A news story yes, an editorial no.

There are so many issues in New Jersey for the state’s largest paper to tackle in its editorials, that I am surprised Kansas’ welfare bill gets the issue. Between the state budget, a near broke Transportation Trust Fund, proposals to overhaul the pension system, heavily criticized standardized tests, changes to the Newark public schools, potholes, crumbling infrastructure, whether or not chain stores should be in downtown Jersey City, Bridgegate, a U.S. senator’s indictment, property taxes, economic development, the problems confronting Atlantic City, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, Chris Christie’s presidential campaign and the 2017 gubernatorial race, the issues facing my home state are endless. These issues can easily fill up the editorial pages of the state’s largest newspaper daily before a bill in Kansas. Especially when a similar bill hasn’t come up in New Jersey and would likely never pass the state Legislature.

I asked Claeys for his opinion on whether or not he wanted a New Jersey newspaper to give him advice.

“I can’t imagine taking advice on the operation of a government from New Jersey,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “Our politicians usually exit office after an election defeat or a retirement, not a prison sentence.”

Now I am not writing this to say that I agree or disagree with the Kansas bill. In fact I am not stating my opinion on the bill. Rather I think this legislation could give us the opportunity to have a serious, substantive debate over the topic of welfare reform and it has been blown. The debate instead has become one of corrections and a focus solely on one aspect of this bill. Hopefully there is still time to have this debate, one that this time looks at everything and not just on the whatever is considered most interesting to be clicked on or most interesting to one political group.