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TANF reserves not a unique situation

The Kansas Department for Children and Families has many important responsibilities, including overseeing state and federal funds that serve our mission: To protect children, promote healthy families and encourage personal responsibility.

In recent weeks, DCF has been criticized for maintaining a healthy reserve in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify the use of TANF funding.

TANF is a federal program and since the 1996 welfare reforms, Kansas has received a yearly federal block grant of $101.9 million for TANF. The amount is set legislatively at the federal level. It does not change based on when cash assistance caseloads increase or decrease. Of the total TANF budget, cash assistance always has been a smaller portion of the pie and justifiably so.  

The federal program is designed to be a welfare-to-work program. The objective is to help families in need temporarily, while assisting adults to obtain training, counseling, their GED or high school diploma, or certification through the Kansas Work Force Centers making people readily employable. Preventing poverty is one of the primary purposes of TANF. That's why DCF has and continues to use TANF funds to prevent future poverty -- breaking the cycle for generations to come. Prevention programs are not a quick fix, but they are effective.

In order to sustain the current programs and invest in future efforts that will help prevent poverty, DCF, (and SRS formerly) has maintained a TANF reserve fund. This reserve fund is not unique to the current administration. Its balance is $48 million. Here's a look at the reserve fund amounts over multiple years and administrations: FY2004, $34.2 million; FY2005, $31.1 million; FY2006, $21.8 million; FY2007, $15 million; FY2008, $22.1; FY2009, $25.4; FY2010, $48.7 million; FY2011 million, $20.5 million; FY2012, $37.4 million; FY2013, $41.6 million

DCF invests TANF dollars into worthwhile programs that help prevent poverty -- as TANF policy requires us to do. Current and future investment in poverty-prevention programs in no way impacts the amount of cash assistance individuals receive. Anyone who qualifies for TANF and fills out the application and participates in the employment training and job search requirements receives cash assistance. Children have not been kicked off cash assistance programs. The reduction in the number of individuals enrolled in the TANF cash assistance program is a reflection of individuals choosing not to work or meet the job-search requirements.

Some examples of how TANF funds are currently and have been used in the past include family preservation services (helping families stay together before a child needs to be removed from his/her home); employment services (assisting adults obtain full-time employment before their TANF limit expires); Kansas Early Head Start (promoting school-readiness through physical, social, emotional and cognitive development); domestic violence and sexual assault programs (helping survivors with safety planning, mentoring, healthy relationship training, financial literacy and responsible parenting); Boys & Girls Club (helping young people with substance abuse prevention and job-readiness); and Child Care Assistance (helping working adults afford the cost of child care so they can maintain employment); Kansas Jobs for Americas Graduates (keeping at-risk students in school by providing mentoring and other services to transition them into the workforce or higher education; Reading Roadmap (giving children the help they need to be proficient readers to secure success later in life); Communities in Schools (working in the schools meeting needs of children and families such as counseling, intervention, as well as physical needs before the family becomes involved with the state).

A recent Kids Count report indicated that 23 percent of children in Kansas are in poverty. We encourage our critics to take a closer look at this report. In three of the four statistics provided, child poverty is actually declining. Additionally, the data are from 2012 -- just as welfare reforms were enacted. The numbers do not reflect how changes in our policies have encouraged employment -- helping families escape poverty.

While some have argued that there are no jobs available, we and our partners at the Kansas Department of Commerce will gladly work with these individuals who are having trouble finding employment. The economy is improving and there are jobs available.

We certainly know that not every job will allow a family to make ends meet. That's why we have a wide range of assistance programs to get families through those tough times. The state of Kansas wants families to succeed and find they can be self-sufficient, not having to live in poverty which is where relying on government benefits leads.  

We will continue to do all we can to help individuals in the short-term with temporary assistance but we also want to ensure long-term success through employment and prevention.

Phyllis Gilmore is secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.