KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Gov. Sam Brownback threw political weight Wednesday behind idea-sharing initiatives organized to spread the gospel about reducing poverty among state governments in the Midwest.
The Kansas Republican closed a two-day conference of the Midwestern Governors Association devoted to alleviating poverty before convening the first meeting of his administration’s Social Services Policy Council, which will serve as an advisory board while the state strives to trim the rate of economically disadvantaged residents.
In Kansas, the U.S. Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure in 2014 indicated 11.8 percent of people lived in poverty. The Kansas rate is comparable in Nebraska and Oklahoma, but higher than in Missouri and lower than in Colorado.
“We want to get the percentage of people in poverty down,” Brownback said during a news conference at Sporting KC soccer stadium. “We want new tools, new strategies to do that.”
Brownback and others at the Midwestern Governor’s Association gathering concurred central factors in the poverty equation were family structure, housing, education and employment.
“We need to focus on fathers,” said Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. “We need to educate them. We need to provide them with skills, and we need to provide them with opportunities so they can take care of their family.”
She said increasing the marriage rate among the poor would be helpful.
“I know people don’t like to talk about that, but marriage is good for kids,” Anderson said.
In Kansas, Brownback has been a strong proponent of heterosexual marriage but opposes gay marriage.
Anderson said addictions, obesity and lower life expectancy were often part of the tapestry of poverty, but those could either be a symptom or driver of a life lived without adequate financial resources. The combination of factors fuel depression and a feeling of hopelessness among people struggling to make ends meet, she said.
“I think when people have bad habits, they’re usually medicating themselves in some way. Cigarettes are a drug. Food can be a drug. Sitting in front of the TV can be a drug,” Anderson said.
Andrew Szalay, director of state and local relations for Habitat for Humanity International, said there was discussion at the Midwestern Governor’s Association gathering — closed to the public — about the condition of rural housing in the Midwest.
He said nearly three-fourths of Kansas homes were built before 1980 and approximately half were at least 65 years old. There is significant demand among the poor for weatherization treatment to lower heating and cooling costs as well as for general repair of aging homes in the state, he said.
“Bottom line is everybody needs a safe, decent place to go home, to regroup, to grow, to love each other,” Szalay said.
Brownback said he was struck by comments during the association’s meeting about the potential of licensing regulations standing as a barrier for people seeking quality jobs. He said lawmakers recently adopted a law requiring professional credentials obtained by military spouses in other states to be recognized within Kansas.
The difficulty that former prison inmates have in obtaining state licenses deserves to be examined, the governor said.
“I don’t know how to get at it,” Brownback said. “I wonder what is the effective way to get at that.”
Meanwhile, Brownback chaired the inaugural meeting of the Governor’s Social Services Policy Council. The panel consists of top administration officials, people with legislative experience and other professionals.
Members of the group will convene regularly to discuss programs and assemble reports to track the condition of Kansans. The purpose of the reports is to allow Kansans to objectively appraise whether trends are moving in the right direction, he said.
“It’s a little bit like the governor’s economic council, only I wanted to do it with social services. It’s kind of a board of directors for social services for the state of Kansas,” Brownback said.