Tag Archives: Kansas

Show us the money. Seriously.

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

What Kansas is doing to welfare policy would be wrong even if the state budget sort of necessitated it.

There are other ways to balance a budget.

But Kansas’ current welfare-cutting binge is particularly reprehensible, in my analysis, precisely because it is entirely unwarranted fiscally.

So the real story here isn’t just how much Kansas has cut from its welfare spending, but, instead, the scale of the cuts and the corresponding increase in the TANF fund balance, reflecting, essentially, lost potential to provide for the well-being of Kansas children and families.

We aren’t just cutting welfare benefits. We’re cutting welfare benefits, socking the federal money aside, asking the federal government for less, and then claiming poverty when advocates and state policymakers push for increases in the very meager monthly benefits and/or restorations of cuts to childcare assistance and other wrap-around supports.

In an economic climate of limited resources, any rumor of pots of money lying around are bound to spark rumors, and many are asking where the money’s going, what the state’s plans are, and how we can build enough political pressure to get those dollars allocated back to their intended purpose: stabilizing poor children and families.

How much have we cut?

Kansas has reduced TANF cash assistance spending to comply with our maintenance-of-effort responsibility by 73% since FY2008, while reducing childcare assistance by 55%. This translates to an average reduction of 19% per case, per month, distributed across a 31% reduction in average monthly cases. TANF beneficiaries in Kansas receive the same monthly allocation they did when TANF began in 1996, reflecting a steep erosion in purchasing power. We’re approving only about a quarter of applicants now, despite marked increases in the percentage of Kansans in need.

Those extra dollars have to go somewhere.

So how much is left?

The size of the TANF fund balance has grown by 133% between FY2008 and FY2014, to more than $53.5 million for the FY2014 approved budget. In truth, this figure could be even higher, had Kansas opted to apply for TANF contingency funds for which it has been eligible for most of the past several years. For example, in FY2013, Kansas would have likely been able to draw down an additional $4.7 million in available federal funds. However, application for these funds is time-limited, and Kansas has missed this chance to funnel additional federal dollars into Kansas communities in need.

The lesson here is threefold:

1. Question scarcity: We cannot let ourselves be lulled into believing official lines about limited resources driving policy decisions. Budgets reflect our values, and we find the money to do what we really want to do. Politics drives resources, not the other way around.

2. Follow the money: We are still trying to unravel all of the details about what money has been allocated for which purposes, but we are learning a great deal about how TANF dollars are being spent, using what we know about the state’s need to show maintenance of effort to lobbying for other spending preservation (Kansas Action for Children employed this to considerable extent during the Earned Income Tax Credit attacks over the past couple of years), and galvanizing some momentum around policy change by showing people that there are, indeed, resources to leverage to address this problem. It’s just a matter of getting them spent in the right place.

3. We can co-opt the language of accountability and outcomes: One of the approaches that is helping in Kansas, to some extent, is our ability to frame the problems with current appropriations as including the lack of any measurable outcomes for the yet-unknown level of spending dedicated to TANF. Kansas appears to collect almost no information on the results of its job training programs, for example, raising a lot of questions even among legislators usually inclined to go along with the administration’s priorities. What’s happening with welfare spending in Kansas is wrong because of its effects on children and families, yes, but also because it’s bad government. I’ll take either argument that will stick.

Mothering and poverty and solidarity

One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.

Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.

Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.

Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):

  • The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
  • Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
  • A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
  • Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
  • Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
  • Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
  • Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
  • Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”

Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.

Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.

I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.

There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.

I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.

But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.

Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.

I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.

I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.

I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.

I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.

What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.

And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:

caseload reductionCaseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on

TANF to poverty ratioTANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports

The mom in me.

Why we celebrate Kansas Day

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

So that there’s no confusion, Kansas Day is actually next week–January 29th, to be exact.

But I have a full week of posts about inequality scheduled for next week and, besides, Kansas deserves a whole birthday week, right?

I just finished reading For the Common Good (review coming before too long, once I get some other posts cleared out), and there’s a part in the very beginning that made it clear that this isn’t just a book about leadership.

It’s a book about leadership in Kansas, written by Kansans.

Because it’s different.

Those who aren’t from our state (and, I must admit, probably even some who are) are certainly forgiven for not knowing, but Kansas is sort of a big deal.

Historically, unlike Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, and other states founded based on geography, “Kansas was founded for a cause: freedom” (p. 8). When Congress passed the Kansas and Nebraska Act in 1854, the choice between being a free state or a slave state was left to the residents of those territories. Abolitionists came from the Northeast and elsewhere to flood the Kansas Territory and influence it to enter as a free state. “Their success helped put Kansas on the right side of history.”

And, in my house and among many of my colleagues and friends, we take that very, very seriously.

Several of the proponents of our instate tuition legislation for immigrant youth referenced our anti-slavery background in their floor speeches; to them, standing up for equality now is more than just the right thing to do.

It’s our birthright as Kansans.

It’s who we are as a people, every bit as much as the sunflowers.

American historian Carl Becker described it in the way that my family still sees it, “The origin of Kansas must ever be associated with the struggle against slavery. Of this fact Kansans are well aware…It is a state with a past.” (cited p. 8, For the Common Good)

My oldest son and I spent a day at the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence this summer.

When we stop at Civil War cemeteries (which, yes, happens with some regularity around here), one of the boys usually wants to know if “someone made them fight for the confederacy”.

They just can’t contemplate willingly putting your life on the line for something so wrong.

I’m not naive about the state of Kansas politics today, and how far less than noble are many of our aspirations in 2014.

And I’m not even ignoring the injustices perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’ then.

We were the Brown v. Board of Education state, after all; we certainly have known our share of racial and social injustice.

I don’t try to encourage my son’s animosity toward the University of Missouri; he comes by that all on his own.

But, I do think that keeping alive a sense of where we came from and why it matters is important, not just for a sort of ‘pride of place’, but also because it is the right side of history, and I want my children to know very clearly that there is always–alwaysa choice to stand there.

As one of my Facebook friends said at the time of the Quantrill commemoration, “the massacre of innocent civilians by Quantrill and his rebels, just because they stood for freedom and justice, is nothing that needs to be gotten over anytime soon.”

So we celebrate Kansas Day, and celebrate Kansas.

Ad astra per aspera–to the stars through difficulty–is a reminder of where we have been, and an exhortation about where we must go.

Oh, SNAP! (I couldn’t help myself.)

In lieu of a guest post, I am sharing this ‘advocacy from the trenches’ example from two of the stellar organizations with which I have the distinct honor and pleasure to work on advocacy: Harvesters and Kansas Action for Children.

Both organizations are taking on the ridiculously (and senselessly) controversial issue of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and both are framing the issue perfectly: are you pro-feeding hungry kids? Or not?

I watched this alongside Joanna Sebelien from Harvesters, featured prominently in the video, this week, and we debriefed the piece and the experience. One of the greatest triumphs, in my assessment, is the quietly devastating representation of the complexity of the SNAP application process by Shelly, the outreach worker.

And KAC CEO Shannon Costoradis’ final comments are absolutely spot-on.

I would never be so presumptuous as to assert any responsibility for their fabulous fearlessness and astute analysis.

Just watch the video. And you’ll know why I am so, so glad to be on the same team.

Learning together, for advocacy

One of Beth Kanter’s posts on measurement within nonprofit organizations addressed the “data disconnect” between organizations and their funders.

She cites research that more than half of nonprofit leaders say that funders prioritize their data needs over nonprofits’ needs for information about their own work, an obviously concerning indicator, given what we know about the importance of data to inform good decision-making by nonprofits, in search of collective impact.

There are two key points from the post that I have been mulling over, especially as the Advocacy Evaluation Collaborative of which I am a part enters its second year.

First, it’s clear that nonprofit organizations want to use data more fully and more systematically to guide their work. Nonprofit leaders not only assert that, they are also dedicating some resources towards that end, which is probably even more clear proof that they’re serious. There are some real constraints, here, though, particularly the lack of financial resources, within most grants, specifically dedicated to evaluation. We see this in the policy world, too; there’s an assumption that, somehow, evaluation just ‘gets done’, when, in truth, there are often significant costs, in order to do it well. There is also some confusion about what, precisely, should be measured, but, to me, this isn’t as much a problem in the evaluation arena as in the context of pursuing impact itself. Because, really, once we’re clear about the changes we want/expect/hope to see come from a particular change strategy, it’s obvious what we’re going to measure: did those changes, in fact, happen? So, then, to the extent to which there is lack of clarity or even disagreement between organizations and funders about what should be measured, I think that reflects a larger chasm around what is supposed to be pursued.

Second, there is a risk that, as data are emphasized as part of the change process, there will be data collection for its own sake, with short shrift given to the analysis and utilization of data. And that’s a real problem, since, really, getting some data is not nearly as important as the ‘sense-making’ process–figuring out what the data are saying, and what to do about it, and what it all means. Especially when there are inadequate resources dedicated to evaluation, though, something will get squeezed and, if evaluation is conducted primarily in order to satisfy funders that it is, in fact, happening, then being able to produce data may be valued over really learning from the questions asked.

As I think back on this first year of working pretty closely with both advocacy evaluations and health funders in Kansas around advocacy evaluation, I’m relatively encouraged. There have been times when the process has seemed laborious, and I have felt particular kinship with the organizations, who have often struggled to make time to dedicate to the evaluation learning, in the midst of an especially tough policy climate in our state.

But I think we’re mostly getting these two critical pieces right, which is where I’m hopeful. There has been a lot of talk between funders and organizations about how to decide what to measure, and about the importance of agreeing, first, on a theory of change that is worthy of evaluation, and then letting the questions flow from that understanding of the impact that is supposed to occur. And the data collection piece is actually a fairly minor chunk of the overall workflow, with much more time spent on articulating those theories of change, analyzing data together, and finding ways to incorporate evaluation rather seamlessly into organizations’ flow of operations, in order to increase the likelihood that they do something with what they learn.

It’s that emphasis, I guess, which has made the difference: on learning, collaboratively, and on evaluation as a tool with which to move the work forward, rather than a hoop to jump through.

I don’t know how you take it to scale, really, this side-by-side process of those with money and those doing the work sitting down together to talk about what they need to learn and how to learn it. This process has only involved a few health funders in one state and six advocacy organizations, and it has still been pretty expensive and time-consuming. But maybe, through peer sharing, nonprofit organizations will come to demand this kind of transparency and collegiality. And foundations will come to expect that they can be part of the learning too. And, together, we can harness the power of inquiry to get better at what we are, together, trying to do.

Change the world.

The What: Maintaining the balance of powers

OK, so, I’m cheating a little bit for this last post of “what week”, because, while this is about a policy itself, it’s one that would–in fundamental and actually quite frightening ways–affect the how of policymaking, too.

In Kansas this legislative session, and in some other parts of the country, too, there have been explicit attempts to cut the judiciary out of the policymaking process.

In my state, this has taken the form of a proposed constitutional amendment to stipulate that only the legislature has the authority to determine what appropriate funding for public education is, so that, essentially, the ‘right’ level of funding is whatever the legislature decides to give, and students and schools would lose their right to seek redress from the courts.

It would be damaging to public education.

And it would be a really dangerous precedent.

History is replete with examples of when judicial advocacy has been a successful path to social justice. Even when individual justices, or even the entire judiciary, is fairly conservative, the way in which the court operates can sometimes lead to surprising conclusions.

In ways that are really promising for the pursuit of the ideals on which the country was founded.

Individuals with disabilities entitled to access, people of color pursuing equal opportunity, gays and lesbians seeking the right to marry…all deserve to have all of the channels of our government open to them.

Sometimes social workers, as advocates, can lose sight of the importance of some of these ‘process’ threats. We have not been very active in the campaign finance debate. We tend to be absent in the fights over collective bargaining rights.

And, so far, at least in Kansas, social workers have not been very present in the constitutional amendment battle about the role of the judiciary, either. Maybe, in part, that’s because school finance isn’t seen as ‘our fight’. And there are plenty of things that are. This session alone, we’ve faced budget cuts, more tax restructuring, drug testing TANF recipients, and elimination of some early intervention programs. Among others.

But if we lose on these ‘whats’, we will find ourselves with very constrained options for pursuing tomorrow’s ‘hows’.

If the other side changes the rules of the game, we will find it harder and harder to win.

It’s certainly not that the judiciary is always a slam-dunk for justice.

But it’s part of the system that, over time, has worked better for securing liberties than any other. And we face far better odds with the courts at the table than without.

So, this, too, has to be our fight.

Not paying enough today

This is what taxes look like in Kansas now:

kansastaxes
Image credit, Think Progress

Hence my complaint:

I am not paying nearly enough in taxes today.

In addition to the lower rates enacted in the massive tax cuts in 2012, there is the fact that I don’t pay nearly as high a percentage of my income in sales taxes as do lower-income households that consume more of their income. And the tax deductions I get to claim for my homeownership (although Governor Brownback wants to eliminate those, in order to help close the budget gap), and for the contributions I make to my children’s college savings account (thereby, really, reaping state subsidies for my children’s future educational advantages). Those are worth thousands of dollars, and I never have to take a drug test for those public benefits.

But it’s not only not enough as a percentage of my income; that part more just chafes at me, because it doesn’t seem fair that we make quite a bit and pay not so much.

It’s not enough in terms of what we really need, and what our state will have to go without.

I don’t pay enough in taxes when I have to turn around and write checks to our public school so that my kids can have a counselor a few days a week, and so that there are adequate supplies in the classroom.

I don’t pay enough in taxes when I hear that our community mental health centers have waiting lists for crisis appointments.

I don’t pay enough in taxes when some of our sidewalks, in a very walkable city, are nearly impassable because of needed repairs.

I don’t pay enough in taxes when we’re not investing what we must in the commons, and in our collective well-being, such that we then retreat into our private realms, where we finance what we can out of all that is left.

It’s tax day, even if it doesn’t really feel like it. We have work to do, so that this can be a day of celebration again.