The following remarks are from Governor Laura Kelly in response to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s letter regarding food assistance:

Thank you for being here today.

When I ran for office, I promised to fight for all Kansas families and kids, including the most vulnerable. To that end, my administration made it a point to help poor Kansans by extending the time people who don’t currently have jobs can get help buying food. The change allowed them to go past three months of food assistance to have another three months. It was a sensible step toward repairing some of the damage done by shortsighted, harmful policymaking in previous years.

But Republican leadership in Kansas sees it differently.

At the request of House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, Attorney General Derek Schmidt has sent a letter asking me to withdraw the new policy and remove assistance from these vulnerable Kansans — some are youth aging out of foster care, some are homeless veterans, and many people struggling with mental health issues — based on his interpretation of Kansas law.

While my team believes the policy we put in place is legally defensible, we have determined that it isn’t worth the cost to Kansas taxpayers to engage in a protracted court battle.

However, we make this decision with a renewed commitment to the values we know Kansans share: that we believe in support for our most vulnerable neighbors in their times of need.

Today, I am re-affirming my promise to Kansans that we will work with the Legislature to reform the destructive Brownback-Colyer HOPE Act to remove the parts that damage our communities and instead refocus our agencies to move toward policies that encourage work, health and well-being among all Kansans.

Unfortunately, current GOP leaders would rather see us continue on the disastrous path of the Brownback-Colyer administrations, whose policies did significant harm to Kansans.

They instituted reckless income-tax cuts with practically no positive return for the state, while also undermining sensible strategies such as a food assistance program designed to improve children’s health and ability to learn.

The previous administrations erased millions of dollars for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and its employment services, and created new restrictions that in essence reduced the number of Kansans who qualify for the program — but not because they are financially secure.

TANF offers temporary aid for housing, food, childcare and other necessities to help the working poor navigate challenging times. The program serves families with young children who are in difficult financial situations.

In the five years that followed policy changes to TANF eligibility, the number of families served plummeted by more than 13,000 to about 5,200.
The changes left many families without access to assistance that helped them meet their basic needs when work wasn’t feasible or sufficient due to child-care costs, lost employment or sickness.

Those who saw the harsh strategy of slashing assistance as a way to compel more TANF recipients to seek employment were wrong. Most parents who left TANF worked both before and after they were forced off the program. Most food assistance recipients who can work, do work. Workers in the low-wage market can’t always rely on having steady full-time jobs that pay a living wage.

Unfortunately, too few families stripped of TANF assistance have made it out of poverty. Representatives of Kansas-based social service agencies who know the reality experienced by low-income Kansans report poor children are still going hungry, and more children are being neglected, abused and ending up in foster care.

An in-depth study by Dr. Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at KU, and Dr. Michelle Johnson-Motoyama of Ohio State has shown that the Brownback-Colyer approach has had an adverse effect on children and families.

According to the Ginther and Johnson-Motoyama report that studied cash assistance programs nationwide, Kansas enacted the most restrictive TANF policies in the country. The report found that foster-care placements rose sharply in the state once families were denied or lost TANF benefits – from over 600 per year in 2011 to more than 1,200 per year in 2018. In all, thousands of Kansas children have entered or eventually will enter foster care due to TANF restrictions.

That’s unacceptable in a state that should do everything it can to keep families together — not to mention the additional cost to the state caused by placing more children in foster care.

In spite of this sad fallout, the attorney general recently sent us notice of his plan to seek legal action if we didn’t reverse the policy change on food assistance that clearly helped many Kansans. How unfortunate that the attorney general saw fit to embrace such a mean-spirited position, rather than acknowledge the good we were trying to achieve in helping those less fortunate. It was sadly ironic from an office charged with protecting the well-being of Kansans.

Moving forward, it’s time to work toward legislation that fixes the many problems of the existing policies.

The Ginther report will serve as a good resource for lawmakers’ study of this important issue. We can and must do a better job of offering reasonable support to Kansans in need.