House rejects bill lowering barriers to food, child care programs aimed at low-income families

Advocates seek compassion for needy; opponents object to work disincentives

By: - March 1, 2022 2:52 pm
Rep. Charlotte Esau, R-Wichita, led advocacy for a bill removing barriers to low-income families gaining access to food and child care programs. The Kansas House voted down the legislation 53-66. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Rep. Charlotte Esau, R-Wichita, led advocacy for a bill removing barriers to low-income families gaining access to food and child care programs. The Kansas House voted down the legislation 53-66. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — Diann Gambill’s job as a family response advocate in Crawford County places her at a vortex of high-risk home environments littered with stressors in which parents choose between paying basic bills and obtaining nutritional groceries for their children.

Gambill knows victims of domestic abuse who have shunned SNAP food aid and child care assistance because it was too dangerous to engage a noncustodial abuser in an attempt to fulfill requirements of the Hope Act signed into law in 2015 and 2016 by Gov. Sam Brownback. The statutes placed unprecedented eligibility limits on access to the state’s core social safety net programs.

State laws denying low-income families access to millions of dollars in federal funding were hailed by supporters as an important incentive for parents to secure jobs rather than lean on government handouts. Critics of erosion in this direct financial assistance argued the reform trapped parents in poverty and shoved children into foster care.

“I have witnessed consumers not apply for food assistance due to not wanting the abuser or perpetrator to be invited back into their lives,” said Gambill, who works to connect families with public services in collaboration with the City of Pittsburg, the Pittsburg Police Department and the Family Resource Center. “Every qualifying caregiver should be able to benefit from food
services such as the SNAP program without fears of being unsafe.

She was among 30 people who testified to the House children and Seniors Committee as a proponent of House Bill 2525, which would remove the state’s requirement parents cooperate with state Child Support Services as a condition of eligibility for food benefits. The bill also would exempt adults enrolled in a public or private K-12 schools or colleges from the 20-hour weekly work mandate for eligibility of child care support.

The lone advocate testifying for the bill was a representative of Opportunity Solutions Project, which is a branch of the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability based in Florida. The foundation has been a proponent of work requirements for SNAP and endorsed model legislation aligned with the Brownback-era Hope Act in Kansas.

Despite support from Republicans and Democrats in the House, the bill failed 53-66. Meanwhile, Opportunity Solutions Project is supporting Senate Bill 501 to enhance restrictions on access in Kansas to safety-net family programs.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, opposed House Bill 2525 because it would remove restrictions on food and child care subsidies and weaken the Hope Act signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)


Perpetuating dependency

Wichita Rep. Patrick Penn, a Republican who voted against House Bill 2525, said the state’s labor shortage meant public policy ought to be shaped to move people off the sidelines to the workforce. Now isn’t the time to place into law heightened incentives for food or child care subsidies while also allowing negligent parents to get away with not paying child support, he said.

He said the bill would be bad for families, taxpayers and the economy. He said provisions of the bill shouldn’t be confused with compassion. Diluting work mandates tied to child care assistance would be like handing a person a get-out-of-jail-free card, he said.

Penn said the House bill “ignores and obliterates all the gains of our successful current policy” and would perpetuate a state of dependency in families rather than strive for a model that rewarded hardworking Kansans.

Holding down a job — not clinging to the state and federal welfare system — is crucial to moving people out of poverty, Penn said.

Rep. Susan Humphries, also a Republican from Wichita, said she was particularly uncomfortable with allowing a parent to sidestep the 20-hour work requirement linked to subsidies if enrolled in six hours of college course credit. She said the legislation was a financial impediment to work because six hours of community college courses cost $600 and government benefits on the table could total $3,500 each semester.

“I’m all for education. I think that’s great, if there was some sort of accountability,” said Humphries, who chairs the House’s higher education budget committee. “I don’t want to disincentivize people to get out there and work.”

State policy written into the proposed House bill would improperly help deadbeat parents avoid child support responsibilities and promote expansion of government benefits related to child care and food purchases, said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, said lifting barriers to child care and food subsidy programs for low-income families would demonstrate compassion for Kansans struggling with economic challenges. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Bit of compassion

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, said the bill would have demonstrated compassion to people in difficult financial situations. She said the legislation would have supported modest-income mothers unable to rush back to work after having a child.

She said after giving birth to her first child her husband lost his job and the family’s health insurance vanished. She promptly returned to the workforce out of necessity, she said.

“Now, I’m lucky. I’m healthy. I was blessed with big feet and wide hips,” Clayton said. “I come from peasant stock. I was able to get right back to work, but not all of our constituents are. So, I think that compassion is the order of the day.”

Rep. Chuck Smith, a Pittsburg Republican who also voted for the bill, said the reality was young women get pregnant and endure hard times because they lack access to financial support. The state should be willing to help young mothers with food and child care if those individuals want to graduate from high school, earn a general equivalency diploma or enroll in college courses.

“My mother moved out when she was 14 years old,” he said. “Nothing was given to her. She would have worked 80 hours a week. And, she probably wouldn’t have accepted anything from the government. But we’re in a different world today. We’re in a whole different world. And one of our biggest problems in Kansas is child care. If we don’t take care of them when they’re young, we maybe take care of them for the rest of their lives.”

Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said one of five children in Kansas experience poverty but the state's child care subsidy program reached only 12% of those kids. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said a survey indicated one of five children in Kansas experience poverty but the state’s child care programs reached only 12% of those kids. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


About the kids

Rep. Charlotte Esau, R-Olathe, said she worked to convince GOP peers to support the legislation by sharing information about a single mother of a 3-year-old who wanted to enroll at a university about two hours away from family and friends capable of providing support.

The only job the mother could get during the timeframe in which child care was available paid her about $300 each month, Esau said. College scholarships and loans weren’t enough to cover living expenses, so the mother filled out an application for child care assistance through the state. On the form, Esau said, the mother left blank the line asking her to identify the child’s biological father because she knew the risk of bringing him into the equation.

State officials said she would be denied assistance without disclosing the father’s identity due to a requirement they pursue the man for child support.

“She told them to delete the application,” Esau said. “There was no amount of support from the state that was worth the risk of involving the absent biological parent in their lives. She had no police report. No record of claiming abuse. But she knew any involvement in their lives would be harmful not just for her but the child she was determined to keep safe.”

Esau said state policy should embrace adults who want to leave dangerous relationships behind and be contributing members of society.

“These are the parents we want to help — not for a lifetime of dependence — but for a short time while they are making efforts to improve their financial situation. Truly, it’s not for the adults, even though they also benefit. It’s the children who truly benefit when the adults in their lives can provide what they need. “

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Tim Carpenter
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.