Kansas’ vulnerable children can’t afford to absorb state budget cuts

John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children, says during a Kansas Reflector podcast recording that lawmakers should increase taxes or close loopholes to find the revenue needed to maintain services to struggling families in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — John Wilson doesn’t believe the state government’s looming budget problems should be resolved on the backs of children desperate to have their basic needs met.

Wilson, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, said thousands of kids would suffer protracted harm if the Republican-led Kansas Legislature and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly followed a path during the 2021 session that slashed spending on programs that feed, house, educate and promote quality of life for children not living in affluent families.

“I’m advocating for a tax increase or closing loopholes that exist,” he said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “There is no way around it. We have lived through austerity in the state of Kansas. And it is not pretty. The effects, some of them are immediate, but a lot of them are long term things that bubble up.”

Bearish projections of state tax revenue indicate a $925 million surplus in the state treasury that existed in early 2020 could be wiped out in 2021.

In 2018, 15% of Kansas children lived in poverty, but nearly one-third of Black Kansas children and one-fourth of Latina children did. There were more than 100,000 children in Kansas living in poverty before the COVID-19 pandemic more than tripled the state’s unemployment rate, forced closure of in-person teaching at public schools and prompted closure of 20% of child-care facilities.

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund, says on the Kansas Reflector podcast that expansion of Medicaid is essential to the well-being of vulnerable children. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, says on the Kansas Reflector podcast that expansion of Medicaid is essential to the well-being of vulnerable children. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, said on the podcast that action by state lawmakers to expand eligibility for Medicaid would have a profound influence on the lives of these children. It’s estimated the reform could extend preventative health coverage to as many as 130,000 low- or moderate-income families.

“It’s immoral that people do not have a safe, reliable way to access the health care they need to keep themselves and their children safe,” Rooker said.

Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, a combination of philosophical and financial objections to expanding Medicaid blocked enhancement of the program reaching about 375,000 Kansans. Colorado implemented expansion, while the states of Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma have made the decision to expand Medicaid but have yet to implement the program.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have bought into the ACA’s provisions for Medicaid. The holdouts are Kansas, Wyoming, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas and seven southern states.

Rooker and Wilson both served in the Kansas House before accepting positions in the child advocacy arena. Rooker was a moderate Republican who served three terms representing a district in Johnson County. Wilson was a Democrat from Lawrence.

The Kansas Children’s Cabinet was created in 1999 to make effective use of millions of dollars in tobacco settlement funding sent to the states, Rooker said. The organization works to coordinate and align the system of services for young children and their families, with an emphasis on prenatal care to when that child enters kindergarten, she said.

Rooker said the unnecessary politicization of public policy applied to Kansas children kept her awake at night.

“The fact that we’re arguing about the politics of public education … of high quality early childhood programs and then the funding of such things, I think the fact that the best interests of our kids is not at the forefront of those conversations is very troubling,” she said.

Wilson said he was frustrated that people making key decisions about the welfare of children in Kansas didn’t understand that kids couldn’t raise themselves.

“They need supportive adult caregivers in their lives to help them out,” he said. “Which means we need to make sure that those adult caregivers have their basic needs met. We don’t seem to be doing that consistently in Kansas.”

He said KAC had been around for 40 years and concentrates its work on shaping state and federal policies tied to improving the health, education and economic outcomes of children from the prenatal stage to age eight. The organization doesn’t accept money from local, state or federal governments to remain an independent voice for children, he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.