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.

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