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SPOTLIGHT
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Childhood poverty

Published on -9/13/2013, 9:55 AM

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When Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was still running for the office, he unveiled the Roadmap for Kansas. The five-part plan was ambitious and, in the governor's words, measurable.

One of the Roadmap's goals was decreasing the number of children living in poverty. Despite being a critical need in this state with almost 20 percent of young Kansans meeting the criteria, it was basically unprecedented.

"The day I saw his Road Map, I said, 'Wow, who let him put that in there?' " Shannon Cotsoradis, president of Kansas Action for Children, said at the time.

The Governor's Task Force on Reducing Childhood Poverty finally was created in November 2012, with the charge of "finding innovative and ground-breaking ways to reduce childhood poverty and improve child outcomes in Kansas."

Our optimism for this group to accomplish anything was diminished significantly because of a series of actions taken by Brownback and the Legislature in the past three years.

The governor's first budget proposed eliminating Early Head Start. That plan eventually was taken off the table, but many other tactics bound to increase childhood poverty made their way into law. During the massive tax overhaul, a child and dependent tax credit was eliminated that was utilized by 60,000 low- and middle-income families. Also deleted was a food sales tax rebate designed for poor families, and the homestead property tax refund for low-income renters.

The number of Kansans receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families has almost been cut in half, not because their needs decreased but because the rules became more onerous and difficult to abide by.

The state sales tax, which was scheduled to decrease to 5.7 percent last July, instead was boosted to 6.1 percent. Sales taxes are inherently regressive, and even an effort to exempt food purchases from sales tax was rejected.

Individual welfare recipients were made subject to drug testing, although the much larger corporate welfare recipients were not. Some 240,000 low-income Kansans who could have come under Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act will not because the governor refused to expand the program. Some 2,200 kids living in households that receive a portion of their income from an illegal immigrant lost access to the food stamp program. Just last week, the state decided not to renew an offered federal waiver that allows 20,000 unemployed Kansans to obtain food assistance. Finally, lawmakers are still working on reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which puts a few hundred extra dollars into the budgets of 200,000 poor residents.

"It is amazingly curious to people who work in the anti-poverty arena on a day-to-day basis," said Tawny Stottlemire, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs. "The policy discussions are disconnected with the governor's policy objective. This administration seems to want to decrease poverty by making it harder to live in poverty -- not by assisting people."

Still, the governor promised something measurable to help decrease poverty for the state's children. We scoured the task force's 27-page report it released last week for something tangible. Not surprisingly, there was little substance to be found.

Of the 27 pages, six pages were dedicated to listing the biographies of the panel -- twice. Four pages were for the bios of the presenters. Ten pages were either title pages or meeting agendas and announcements. Take off the one-page executive summary, and suddenly the impressive-sounding 27-page report on this important issue was reduced to six pages.

Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families and chair of the task force, admitted the group didn't agree on any specific reforms. In fact, there wasn't a single vote taken by the 12-member panel. But they did assemble some recommendations in three key areas: education, employment and family composition.

As explained by a Kansas Health Institute report, the recommendations include:

* Expand job training and technical education programs;

* Find mentors for at-risk children;

* Improve fourth grade reading scores;

* Promote employment over dependence on government-funded programs;

* Launch a public relations campaign to stress the importance of marriage and fatherhood;

* Expand middle school and high school classes on healthy relationships;

* Reduce or eliminate marriage license fees for couples that complete an eight-hour course on healthy relationships.

"I'd say it's a good summary of what we already know," said Betsy Cauble, a social welfare professor at Kansas State University.

"There's nothing in here on early childhood development, which research has shown to be the most critical window for combating the effects of poverty -- that's the most glaring omission," said KAC Director Cotsoradis. "There's also no mention of shoring up the social safety-net programs that are keeping thousands of families together. There's nothing in these recommendations that's going to produce near-term results. That's unfortunate because these kids are in poverty now."

In short, there was nothing innovative or groundbreaking in the task force's report. Most of the recommendations either were lifted directly from Brownback's Roadmap, or were actions already taken by the Legislature.

The state will need a different approach if childhood poverty ever is to be reduced. The only thing measurable about the task force's report is the number of pages legislators undoubtedly will be reading when they convene in January. In the meantime, expect the poverty rate to keep going up.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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