Tag Archives: state budget

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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Better budget cutting

One of the most unnecessarily obvious things I’ve ever said here:

We’re in budget-cutting mode.

In Congress and in state legislatures and in local and county government and in nonprofit organizations.

And these exercises in austerity tend, for the most part, to follow the same script:

Cut, with only superficial attention to the acknowledged impact of the cuts, even when they are dire. Cuts, without considering other options to deal with deficits. Cuts, without much consideration of the long-term consequences.

Cuts, sometimes, just for cuts’ sake.

In Decisive, the discussion about how corporations should approach decision-making around budgets holds a lot of lessons for these budget-cutting frenzies, too.

And it makes me feel less alone, because I’ve been making some of these points for a long time.

  • We need to widen our options, including looking to other sources of revenue as a way out. As my students and I discuss every semester, and as families everywhere know from their own budgets (the only extent of the valid comparison between government budgets and household budgets, in my opinion): there are two ways to fill budget gaps, either by cutting expenses or by increasing income (or both).
  • We need to be strategic with cuts, where they must be made, instead of just making cuts across the board. All cuts are not created equal, and the ones that can be made with less infliction of pain are, in real ways, better than others.
  • And, the piece that I think is the most promising, applied to government budgets: we need to consider where we might cut even more deeply than we would otherwise need to in order to free up funds to invest in exciting new opportunities, including, of course, those that could generate better revenue potential (in government terms, economic growth).

What would that look like, in the context of government budget cutting, if we were thinking about growth and investment even alongside preparing for retrenchment and reduction? And what might be the economic impact, especially over the long haul, of that kind of foresight? And how could approaching budget cutting (and, for social workers, the critical task of staying at the table during the budget cutting negotiations, even when we loathe the process and the outcome) with this more intentional and strategic thinking?

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever like the idea of retreating from our public commitments to the common welfare.

But maybe budget cutting can be better.

Patience: An overrated virtue

I am not a very patient person.

This is probably why, around the time that my kids turn 18 months old, when they’re in full-on toddler mode, and, therefore, unable to delay their gratification for even a minute, someone remarks that, “sooner or later, they all revert to Mommy’s personality.”

I mean, thanks.

But I usually say, when they’re screaming and kicking their feet on the floor, that that attitude will really serve them well, as advocates.

Because, when it comes to demanding justice, patience is not our friend.

I appreciated the colorful language of Raphael Lemkin, the crusader who coined the term ‘genocide’, who said, “Patience is a good word to be used when one expects an appointment, a budgetary allocation or the building of a road. But when the rope is already around the neck of the victim and strangulation is imminent, isn’t the word ‘patience’ an insult to reason and nature?” (p. 28).

Except I’d point out that, sometimes, a budget allocation–or the lack thereof–can be almost as damaging to an individual’s well-being as a figurative noose, and, so, when it comes to advocating for the resources that people need to live decently and justly, we aren’t necessarily well-served by an abundance of patience, either.

I have thought about this a lot lately, as our state wrestles with a budget that could see tremendous cuts to the programs that serve children in need, from before they’re born throughout their lives.

Because, the thing is, our children never get those years back.

The dire consequences we can expect for our children’s futures, if we eliminate their health care and their early childhood assessments and intervention, and increase their class sizes and squeeze out their best teachers, and strain their mental health safety nets and push their parents to the breaking point…we can’t delay those, urging patience, while we get our fiscal house in order.

And, so, maybe we all should be kicking our feet and screaming.

Maybe, indeed, the really unbelievable–and unreasonable–thing, is to take this all so calmly.

There’s a really haunting passage in A Problem from Hell that dramatically underscores this difference between what may be called for, and what we’re comfortable doing. In the story, a Jewish leader from Warsaw pleaded with Jews in Allied countries to take unreasonable action to raise world outrage about the unfolding genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. His proposals were called “bitter and unrealistic”, but he was unmoved. “…Let them crowd the offices of Churchill, of all the important English and American leaders and agencies. Let them proclaim a fast before the doors of the mightiest, not retreating until they will believe us, until they will undertake some action to rescue those of our people who are still alive. Let them die a slow death while the world is looking on. This may shake the conscience of the world” (p. 33).

When do we let patience, or reasonableness, excuse inaction and cowardice?

When do we dismiss as too radical the actions of conscience to which we are called?

And what price is paid for our self-defeat?

A Problem from Hell ends with a citation of George Bernard Shaw’s quote that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”, and an exhortation that we have to “join and legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable” (p. 516).

Maybe we need more ‘screamers’, as those who protested Nazi abuses early on were known, but we have to keep screaming until it stops.

Maybe we need to stop listening to those who would counsel gradualism and urge patience.

Maybe we need more people acting like toddlers, in the advocacy context, refusing to be quieted until we have what we need.

I knew this temperament would come in handy.

Remember: We’re the Sunflower State

This Sunflower hangs on a gate at my house, as a reminder of what we must be.

These are tough times, Kansans.

The economy isn’t great (although we ended last year with a healthy balance, thanks to some pretty drastic funding cuts whose effects will be felt for generations).

We’re in the middle of redistricting, which is ugly in the best of circumstances and potentially explosive with a polity as divided as ours today.

We face battles in this new legislative session around Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation, raids of the Children’s Initiative Fund, an attack on our revenue foundation, and more cuts compounding the cuts.

It’s a good thing we’re the Sunflower State.

Sunflowers were adopted as a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement by Kansas suffragettes, I think mainly to ensconce their movement fully within the social mainstream. It has been used in advocacy campaigns repeatedly since, according to my research, because sunflowers can take the heat.

And they always face the sun.

And that’s what we need today.

As advocates, we’ve never felt more heat. The stakes are high, and the threats are real.

But we know what our vision looks like, too, and that’s the promise, the sun, towards which we must set our sights, unwilting, unbending.