With temporary federal supports giving way, Kansas must do better for children in poverty

October 24, 2023 3:33 am
Tara Wallace helps a group of children pick out beads for bracelets

Improvements in child poverty and food insecurity were correlated with pandemic-era programs, according to Kansas Action for Children's John Wilson. Recent data shows child poverty on the rise. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)

Recently, my team at Kansas Action for Children examined trends in data to see how our state’s kids and families are doing. Improvements in child poverty and food insecurity were specifically correlated with several early pandemic-era programs. Sadly, more recent data shows child poverty on the rise again.

The temporarily expanded federal child tax credit, no-cost school meals for all kids, increased food assistance benefits, and other measures relieving financial burdens all contributed to thousands more Kansas kids getting what they need to have enough to eat for every meal and live in a more financially stable home.

Because of these programs, these decreases were significant. According to our 2023 Kansas Kids Count Data Book, from 2019 to 2021, 9,000 children were lifted out of poverty and 26,000 more kids had enough to eat for every meal.

These numbers stick with me because more recent data shows we’re starting to see an uptick in child poverty numbers. Recent 2022 U.S. Census Data shows about 1,500 more Kansas kids lived in households with incomes below the poverty line. (For reference, the 2022 federal poverty line is $24,860 for a family of three.)

Kansas can — and must — do more. We cannot let even more children slip back into poverty and feel the harms of insufficient food, inadequate health care, and lack of opportunities. With the state looking at a nearly $2.6 billion surplus, we can provide targeted relief for families already doing their best to make ends meet.

A direct way to financially support families is through implementing a state child tax credit, through which Kansas parents would receive a credit on their tax returns. States have implemented their own plans in a variety of ways, from targeting the families most in need to making the credit universal for every household with a child. If lawmakers were to implement a plan supporting every Kansas family, more than 700,000 kids in 323,000 Kansas households would be affected.

This would be transformational to families living on the edge of poverty.

Healthy parents are instrumental in raising healthy kids. Advocates across the state are once again calling on the Legislature to expand Medicaid. By doing so, we can close the abysmal coverage gap wherein a single mom of two children bringing in more than $9,444 but less than $24,860 each year can still have access to vital health care.

– John Wilson

Healthy parents are instrumental in raising healthy kids. Advocates across the state are once again calling on the Legislature to expand Medicaid. By doing so, we can close the abysmal coverage gap wherein a single mom of two children bringing in more than $9,444 but less than $24,860 each year can still have access to vital health care.

That gap prevents low-income Kansans from accessing health coverage through Medicaid or on the health insurance marketplace. So right now, that single mother’s only option to access health insurance (if her employer doesn’t offer any) is through fully paying the premium herself. If she has a health emergency without coverage, she is likely to receive astronomical medical bills, straining her family’s budget even further.

Kansas can help parents ensure their kids have enough to eat, too, through policies that help prevent school meal debt. The most widely beneficial option would be no-cost school meals for every child, just as the federal government implemented in the first two school years of the pandemic. Every Kansas kid, regardless of their income, would have access to healthy school breakfast and lunch, enabling them to learn and succeed in school. A compromise would be to fully eliminate the reduced-price category, which subsidizes a portion of some low-income students’ meals, and move those students into the free lunch category.

To do even better, we can increase food assistance benefits to be in line with inflation. Right now, families living on low incomes are forced to stretch what little benefits they receive to accommodate the rise in grocery prices.

And we cannot let the next legislative session go by without significant investment in child care. Our system is stressed, and parents, providers, and businesses are all paying the price.

By increasing the eligibility for child care assistance to 450% of the federal poverty level, more parents will be able to place their kids in high-quality, safe care while they work to provide for their families. We can also support these small businesses by making the child care field a more desirable career option, such as by helping workers obtain health insurance or subsidizing their health coverage obtained through the health insurance marketplace.

Ensuring every Kansas child has what they need shouldn’t be political. I believe all these solutions have opportunities for bipartisanship. We need all lawmakers to go into the 2024 session with a determination to solve the economic pressures weighing on families’ budgets so that every Kansas family has the freedom to thrive.

John Wilson is president of Kansas Action for Children. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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John Wilson
John Wilson

John Wilson joined Kansas Action for Children in September 2017 as vice president. He became president and CEO of KAC in 2019, after leading the group’s work in early education, health policy and family supports. Before his time at KAC, Wilson worked at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. As a Kansas State Representative, he worked to redefine the culture of the Legislature to make it more open and collaborative. The best parts of his day are when he’s spending time with his wife, Jami, and their two sons, Parker and Henry.