Welfare changes fall off radar in election season

More Kansans will drop from rolls as requirements for cash, food assistance increase

by Andy Marso, KHI News Service

For Ashlyn Harcrow, the sound of the train whistle brings up all kinds of thoughts she’d like to avoid.

Harcrow, 24, has been living at the Topeka Rescue Mission since July. The nonprofit homeless shelter has helped her stabilize as she recovers from domestic violence and tries to improve her mental health amid post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

But the mission, at 600 N. Kansas Ave., is right next to the tracks. As trains rumble through north Topeka, they remind Harcrow that she’s thought about using those tracks to take her own life.

“All these trains that go by here,” she said, “it don’t help.”

Harcrow would like to leave the mission and get her own place. But it’s a financial impossibility until she gets her mental health on track so she can return to the workforce.

She recently signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is commonly called food stamps. But she doesn’t qualify for any cash assistance that could help pay rent on an apartment or transportation to make sure she gets to her appointments at Valeo Behavioral Health Care.

“Since I don’t have any children or anything, I can’t get cash,” Harcrow said.

In Kansas, qualifying for welfare is hard — and it’s getting harder.

The state has no cash assistance program of its own, and the Legislature passed new restrictions on a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, for the second year in a row.

The new restrictions include stricter lifetime limits on benefits that will cause hundreds of families to lose their assistance on Jan. 1, 2017.

Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative Republicans in the Legislature who approved the law said it’s part of a larger strategy to move government away from cash assistance and toward employment help — with the governor frequently saying the best form of welfare is a good-paying job.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a former Brownback aide, is pushing that philosophy at the federal level, and other Republican-led states are enacting similar TANF restrictions.

In a memo to fellow Republicans sent in February, Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce called tightening welfare restrictions a political winner for the party.

But Bruce was ousted in the August primary election that saw a number of conservatives fall to more moderate challengers, and neither party has made anti-poverty programs much of an issue in general election campaigns.

The political discussion has shifted from the individual budgets of struggling Kansans to the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

Welfare rolls fall

When Brownback took office in January 2011, almost 39,000 Kansans received TANF, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which administers the program.

By September 2016, that number had fallen nearly 70 percent, to about 12,000: 3,000 adults and 9,000 children who represent about 0.4 percent of the state’s population. The average TANF benefit for each family is about $260 a month.

Brownback’s administration has spearheaded a number of TANF restrictions that he said are aimed at breaking “cycles of dependency” on government programs and encouraging work instead.

That includes rolling back the lifetime limits, from 48 months to 36 months in 2016 and from 36 months to 24 months in 2017.

Last year’s bill resulted in about 200 families losing their cash assistance on Jan. 1, 2016. DCF estimates as many as 424 families, including 763 children, will lose their benefits when the new limits start in January 2017.

Barry Feaker, the executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, said it’s a relatively small number compared to the state’s total population, but for those families, losing TANF could hinder their ability to climb out of poverty.

“There have been individuals who have really seen that as an opportunity to use it to be able to move up, absolutely,” Feaker said. “Equally we’ve had people who don’t know how to move up, that’s the bigger concern.”

Feaker has been fighting poverty and studying its causes for 30 years as the leader of the rescue mission.

He said a growing body of evidence suggests that generational poverty has a biological component — that children who spend their earliest years in families stressed by poverty suffer setbacks in brain development that affect them the rest of their lives. That’s why the rescue mission is building a $12 million “Children’s Palace” to provide day care for homeless kids age 5 and under.

Feaker said the rescue mission encourages poor families to use TANF as a short-term “insurance policy” to alleviate some of their stress during tough financial times.

He said from that standpoint, the state’s time limits make sense, but only when coupled with robust transitional programs to help get people into the workforce. Otherwise, he said, just kicking families off the rolls is a gamble.

“If you’ve never had a successful employment situation in your life … what’s going to change that?” Feaker said.

HOPE Act

Brownback administration officials say their TANF job programs are working, citing 40,000 employments since 2011. Supporters call the programs the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone, or HOPE, Act.

Theresa Freed, a spokeswoman for DCF, provided several examples of former TANF clients who transitioned to the workforce and signed waivers allowing the agency to discuss their cases. They included:

• Donald Hoadley, a 30-year-old Topeka man who got a part-time job at a car wash paying $8.50 an hour and was soon getting full-time hours by making himself available to fill in for co-workers who didn’t show. According to DCF, in less than a month, Hoadley’s employer had moved him into a managerial position at a different location that would include a raise after he finished his training. DCF reported providing Hoadley with job training and transportation.

• Duane Greathouse, a 43-year-old Newton man who in March got a full-time job at a truck stop paying $9 per hour. Agency officials reported helping Greathouse with transportation and his resume and working with several charities to get Greathouse clothing, a bicycle and a bicycle lock.

• Charisa Ullrich, a 38-year-old Pittsburg woman who got a full-time job at a plastics manufacturer that pays $9.50 per hour. DCF reported that Ullrich participated in the agency’s Generating Opportunities to Attain Lifelong Success, or GOALS, program and agency staff helped her get clothing and steel-toe boots for the job.

GOALS is available to Kansans who receive food assistance, a far larger group than those who qualify for TANF. It provides career counseling, plus help with transportation and child care.

KHI News Service was unable to reach the three former TANF clients for comment on the GOALS program.

DCF also has established a mentoring program to help Kansans transition from TANF that is modeled on a program to help inmates leaving state prisons.

“The Kansas HOPE Act is the most comprehensive welfare reform in the nation,” DCF secretary Phyllis Gilmore said in a June 30 news release. “Our solution is not as quick as handing someone cash, but our answer to poverty is much more effective. We are breaking the cycle of poverty through employment. It’s good for our clients and it’s good for Kansas taxpayers, who continue to overwhelmingly support welfare-to-work policies.”

But a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Kansas is among a number of states that diverted most of their TANF dollars to purposes other than basic assistance or employment help.

TANF is a federally funded program administered by the states. States must provide some matching funds — known as “maintenance of effort” — to continue receiving the federal dollars.

The state has used TANF dollars for a variety of programs, but the biggest chunk — almost 30 percent in 2015 — went to the state’s earned income tax credit — a refundable credit that low-income workers can claim on their income tax returns. All of that 30 percent came from the state’s matching funds.

As the state’s TANF rolls continue to decline, overall poverty rates have not changed at nearly the same rate.

The Kansas poverty rate dropped from 13.8 percent in 2011 to 13.0 percent in 2015 and has stayed consistently in the middle of the pack compared to other states, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

While about 377,000 Kansans continue to live in poverty — which is annual income below $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four — their options for government help are limited.

TANF serves only families with children. Some states also provide their own cash assistance programs for childless adults like Ashlyn Harcrow, but Kansas is not among them.

Assistance amounts

For fiscal year 2016 in Kansas, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will distribute $17 million and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program $350 million. Most of that is federal funding.
Source: Kansas Department for Children and Families

Harcrow’s future

Harcrow used to work as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Nebraska and had her own apartment. But that was before she started watching her grandpa die.

She found it hard to go to work every day and help residents whose health was similarly failing because of what she was going through with her grandpa.

“He chose not to let me be homeless,” she said, choking up. “He had helped me out with bills.”

After her grandpa died, Harcrow told her then-boyfriend that she needed out — out of her job, out of their town, out of the life she had at the time.

They moved to Topeka. When he became abusive, she had no family to turn to.

“My grandma and grandpa are gone,” Harcrow said. “My mom, she lives about 12 hours away from here. I don’t have the support that is needed.”

Harcrow escaped the relationship and is looking to get back on track with the help of the staff at the rescue mission.

But she has found it challenging to get help from the government safety net.

Her application for SNAP, which is easier to qualify for than TANF, was recently approved. She received $118 in food assistance in October and $194 in November.

She said she’d have to use some of it at gas stations because there’s no grocery store within a mile of the rescue mission, and the city bus is her only transportation. But she said being able to buy her own food is still a major relief.

“Having the food stamps … it’s helping me out a lot to feel more positive about myself,” Harcrow said.

Harcrow said her mental health and ability to control her emotions is still the main obstacle to getting and keeping a job, and her treatment at Valeo is limited because she has not been able to get on Medicaid.

Kansas Medicaid, or KanCare, is restricted to children, parents, the frail elderly, people with disabilities and pregnant women who meet certain income limits.

Brownback and Republican legislators have rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which would have extended coverage to other low-income Kansans like Harcrow with the federal government paying no less than 90 percent of their enrollment.

Harcrow said she’s working with an attorney to apply for a federal disability designation based on her mental illnesses that would allow her to qualify for Medicaid. It also could help her qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income payments.

She won’t qualify for TANF, but she said if she did, she’d use the money to get away from the train tracks.

“It would help me out quite a bit,” Harcrow said. “I’d put it toward getting out of here and getting in a home and having my own place to help me out.”

The nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online.

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Besler, Zusi to join U.S. Men’s team for World Cup qualifiers

Matt Besler

Matt Besler


Graham Zusi

Graham Zusi


Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi have joined the 26-player US. Men’s National Team roster ahead of two pivotal World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica, U.S. Soccer announced.

The United States kicks off the Hexagonal on Friday, as host of arch rival Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Kickoff is set for 6:45 p.m. on FS1 and Univision as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s side begins the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region.

Following Friday’s highly anticipated showdown with Mexico, the U.S. will travel south to face Costa Rica at Estadio Nacional in San Jose. The match will kick off at 8 p.m. on beIN SPORTS and NBC Universo.

CONCACAF’s six-team Hexagonal will unfold between November 2016 and October 2017 in a home-and-away, round-robin format. The top three finishers will advance to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, while the fourth-place team will meet an Asian side in a World Cup playoff next November.

The U.S. MNT begins its Hexagonal campaign against the two highest-ranked CONCACAF nations. No. 17 Mexico and No. 18 Costa Rica sit above No. 24 USA in FIFA’s latest world rankings.

On Friday, the USA-Mexico rivalry will return to Columbus for the fifth time since 2001. In the past four World Cup cycles, the U.S. has earned 2-0 shutout victories at MAPFRE Stadium in this fixture.

Besler, 29, has earned 37 caps for the United States, including eight appearances in 2016. He started twice at the 2016 Copa America in June, scored his first international goal in a win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 2, and recently anchored the defense in a friendly vs. New Zealand on Oct. 11.

A native of Overland Park and the first Kansan to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team, Besler has featured regularly along Klinsmann’s backline since making his debut in 2013. The center back helped guide the U.S. MNT to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and started all for games at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil as the Americans reached the Round of 16.

Besler enjoyed a strong finish to the 2016 MLS campaign with Sporting Kansas City, leading the side to consecutive shutouts to close out the regular season. He ranks fifth in club history with 239 appearances in all competitions, having won two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups (2012, 2015) and the 2013 MLS Cup.

Individually, Besler has garnered MLS Best XI (2012-13), MLS All-Star (2011, 2013-16) and 2012 MLS Defender of the Year accolades during his eight-year professional career. He joined his hometown club in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft out of Notre Dame.

Zusi, 30, has amassed 41 caps for the U.S. since 2012, recording five goals and six assists. The versatile midfielder played five matches at the 2016 Copa America – scoring against Costa Rica on June 7 and starting in the semifinal against Argentina – and also started in a 6-0 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 2.

A native of Longwood, Fla., Zusi recorded two assists in four appearances at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. He also featured at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Zusi, like Besler, joined Sporting Kansas City in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. The University of Maryland product has totaled 29 goals and 60 assists in 227 competitive appearances for the club, ranking second on the team’s all-time assist chart.

He has received MLS Best XI (2012-13) and 2011 MLS Breakout Player of the Year honors and was the only player to appear in every MLS All-Star Game from 2012-2015. During Major League Soccer’s Opta era (2011-present), Zusi ranks second in chances created (418) and third in assists (47).

– Story from Sporting KC

Stingy defense not enough for KCKCC men at Garden City

by Alan Hoskins, KCKCC

Kansas City Kansas Community College couldn’t match its defensive effort offensively and dropped a 66-54 decision to Garden City in the opening round of the Garden City Classic Friday night.

The loss dropped the Blue Devils to 0-2 heading into a clash with Northeast Colorado Saturday and a Tuesday matchup at North Arkansas.

Facing a Garden City team that averaged 112 points and was shooting 54 percent in two opening wins, the Blue Devils held the Broncbusters to just 36 percent from the field.

However, the Blue Devil offense was limited to 18-point performances by Mike Lee and Jon Murray. Murray and Lee also had 10 rebounds each but no one else scored more than six points for the Blue Devils, who shot 34.4 percent and were outrebounded 47-41.

Taking advantage of 11 KCKCC turnovers, Garden City opened a 30-24 halftime lead as Ben Howze and John Fleming combined for 17 points. The Broncbusters widened the lead to 44-29 with a 14-5 run in the first eight minutes of the second half and then turned back every KCKCC comeback attempt.

The Blue Devils return home for the Keith Lindsey Classic Nov. 11 and 12, and will be the host of Link Year Prep Friday at 8 p.m. and Livin’ The Dream Saturday at 6 p.m. The Lindsey Classic will also feature the KCKCC Athletic Hall of Fame inductions Friday of Dennis Tinnon, the nation’s leading rebounder and fifth leading scorer in 2011; and the 1996-67 women’s basketball team that finished 35-2 and finished fifth in the NJCAA Division I national tournament. The inductions will come between the KCKCC women’s game against Saint Mary JV and the men’s game against Link Year Prep (about 7:45 p.m.).