The Senate voted Wednesday to solidify policies restricting cash assistance to low-income Kansans over the objections of a senator who represents an urban district and other Democrats.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Democrat from Wichita, said her Senate colleagues displayed ignorance of the realities of poverty in Kansas by passing House Bill 2258.
“We in this body think that people who are receiving welfare benefits are low-life people sitting home doing nothing,” Faust-Goudeau said. “The majority of those individuals are the working poor. They go to work every day, but they still qualify for those little benefits they receive.”
The chamber’s final vote on the bill could come Thursday.
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Republican from Wichita, carried the bill to the floor.
Among other measures, it would limit the amount of cash that recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can withdraw each day, reduce lifetime benefits from 48 months to 36 months and restrict recipients from using their assistance card for a long list of entertainment items, including theme parks and sporting events.
The bill also includes restrictions on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly called food stamps. Some of the changes, including work and job training requirements, already were established by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration through rules and regulations, but writing them into law would ensure future administrations could not change the policies without legislative approval.
O’Donnell and other supporters said the bill would prevent fraud and help recipients move off welfare and into the workforce.
“We’re trying to make sure these benefits are used the way they were intended to be,” O’Donnell said.
Faust-Goudeau and the chamber’s other Democrats slowed the bill’s passage by offering a host of amendments to do things like allow the secretary of the Department for Children and Families to extend the duration of benefits during times of economic recession and require annual reports on the success of the job training programs meant to help people off the TANF and SNAP rolls. The chamber’s Republican supermajority defeated the Democratic amendments one by one during a floor session that took most of the day.
But when one of the bill’s supporters, Parker Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson, offered an amendment to lower the daily ATM withdrawal limit even more — from $60 to $25 — it was adopted 23-14.
O’Donnell expressed some concern that most ATMs only distribute cash in multiples of $20 and asked Tyson what she thought about a $40 daily withdrawal limit.
But Tyson held firm at $25, saying the details could be ironed out by a conference committee with the House. O’Donnell voted for her amendment.
Faust-Goudeau expressed dismay at the $25 limit, asking her colleagues to consider the plight of constituents who do not have checking accounts and pay a portion of their rent and utilities by cashing in their assistance every month and then converting the cash into a money order.
She said she traveled with some TANF recipients one day to get a firsthand look at the steps involved.
“It’s a two-hour trip, and it’s not Gilligan’s Island,” Faust-Goudeau said. “It’s a two-hour trip on the bus just to get there, and then back home. So that’s four hours in that day.”
Faust-Goudeau questioned whether TANF recipients would even be able to afford the bus fare with a $25 withdrawal that would likely be diminished by ATM fees.
She also asked her colleagues to remember that each of their districts contain TANF recipients and repeatedly said that a majority of adult TANF recipients are working but earning so little that they still qualify for help.
Some senators asked why TANF recipients were paying their rent and utilities in cash.
“Do we not encourage welfare recipients to get involved with a bank?” asked Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Republican from Grinnell.
O’Donnell said each recipient is assigned a case worker to help with money management.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka, offered an amendment to put the bill’s changes on hold pending a review from a social services advisory council that Gov. Sam Brownback established.
Hensley said he thought the bill, which also provides for voluntary photo identification cards for TANF recipients, might have some positive aspects. But he said it also likely would have some consequences his colleagues weren’t able to identify, and he thought the experts on the governor’s council would be better equipped to vet it.
“This bill contains a number of different social services policies that I’m not sure we as legislators can get our arms around and understand,” Hensley said.
Hensley’s amendment received only 10 votes.
While some supporters of the bill said a study of the TANF changes would be worthwhile after passing it, they said there should be no delay in approving the changes.
“Work lifts individuals out of poverty,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee. “It lifts individuals out of depression, and it gives them a sense of self-worth.”
The number of TANF recipients in Kansas has dropped precipitously during Brownback’s tenure, from more than 40,000 to just under 15,000. Several nonprofit advocacy organizations say that’s mainly due to restrictions that have limited access to the program, pointing to data that shows poverty levels in the state have not fallen.
But the governor’s supporters cited job training programs and the 6,000 TANF recipients who found employment that paid enough to get off the program between December 2013 and December 2014 as evidence that the changes should be set in law as soon as possible.
The Senate smoothed the measure’s possible path to passage by placing it in a House bill.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.