Mother asks Kansas lawmakers to roll back restrictions on food assistance, child care support

Cecilia Douglass, of Garden City, struggled to support her three children after being abandoned by the father of her son in 2017. She can't access safety net programs under state law without reconnecting with the man to ask for child support. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The father of Cecilia Douglass’ son abandoned her in 2017 when she was five months pregnant, leaving her with his massive debt.

The Garden City mother, who also had two daughters, had accepted a job that didn’t pay much but offered flexibility for attending doctor’s appointments.

“Losing that second income did not leave me a lot of options to provide for my family, let alone taking care of myself,” Douglass said. “My health was failing during that pregnancy. I relied heavily on peanut butter sandwiches and Ensure shakes during the pregnancy with my son because unfortunately we were very limited financially.”

FEEDING KANSAS CHILDREN

Statewide numbers from 2018 data, compiled by Kansas Appleseed

Food Insecure Kansans: 368,770

Percent of Kansans who are food insecure: 12.7%

Number of Kansas children who are food insecure: 129,780

Percent of children who are food insecure: 18.4%

Average meal cost in Kansas: $2.91

After the son was born, she told members of a House committee on Monday, she applied for assistance from the state. Before she can get help for food or child care, she learned, state law requires her to seek child support payments from the father.

Douglass said the step seems excessive. The man has not attempted to connect since leaving her, and it is unclear if he will ever have a relationship with his son. She said the state shouldn’t be in the business of forcing that connection without her consent.

“It’s difficult out there providing for children on a limited income,” Douglass said. “Having a stipulation that gets an absent parent involved is problematic in a lot of situations.”

She testified in support of House Bill 2371, proposed by Kansas Action for Children, to remove the requirement that single parents cooperate with child support services before receiving assistance from the state. The legislation also would remove a work requirement for students enrolled in secondary or post-secondary classes.

Thirty-eight supporters weighed in on the bill, which would undo provisions of the Hope Act — a litany of restrictions passed in 2015 and 2016 that made it more difficult for the state’s poorest families to access federal programs for food assistance and child care support. The Hope Act restrictions correlated with a dramatic rise in the number of children who were placed in foster care, leading to instability within the foster care system.

John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children, testifies by video Monday before a House panel on the merits of House Bill 2371. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children, said more than 100,000 Kansas children are living in poverty. That means earning less than $21,960 for a family of three. The average cost for infant care in Kansas, Wilson said, is $935 per month. For a 4-year-old, the average cost is $733 per month.

Wilson said the proposal to ease access to safety net programs would help parents put food on the table, enroll children in child care, get an education and regain financial footing.

“Too many young Kansans are growing up in families where their basic needs are not being met,” Wilson said. “So without meaningful intervention from lawmakers, we expect to see these problems get worse.”

Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, an associate professor of social work at Ohio State University, testified about her research with Donna Ginther, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, about the harmful impact of policies that disqualify access to programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Notably, the costs of SNAP benefits are small relative to the direct and indirect costs of child maltreatment and foster care,” Johnson-Motoyama said. “While states may be inclined to find ways to reduce program costs, particularly right now, during the pandemic, our findings from the Great Recession suggest that limiting access to SNAP results in harm to children and considerably higher cost to taxpayers in the long run. Conversely, policies that increase access to SNAP and boost SNAP investments may see important protective effects for children, families and also for state budgets.”

Several members of the House Children and Seniors Committee questioned the wisdom of removing protections for taxpayers by letting absent parents off the hook.

Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg, wondered whether a “motivated parent” could profit from easier access to food and child care. (Feb. 1, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“I was wondering, what if you had a motivated parent?” said Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg. “How much money could they make before they had to leave this program?”

Wilson answered: “I don’t think anybody’s making money. This is barely keeping families afloat.”

Steven Greene, with Opportunity Solutions Project, was the lone opponent to testify about the bill. The organization serves as the lobbying arm for Foundation for Government Accountability, whose financial backers include Charles Koch, and fights to remove access to food assistance.

Greene said the organization promotes policies that celebrate the “power of work, so that people help realize the American dream.” He said the Hope Act is good policy, and he took issue with the broad proposal to relieve college students from working 20 hours per week.

“This means hypothetically, if this bill was passed, a person can enroll in a one-hour elective at a state college in the history of video games and be exempt from the work requirement to receive the child care subsidy, and there’s no time limits on it,” Greene said.