Research & Commentary: Kansas Leads the Way in Welfare Reform

Published September 7, 2017

Since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, state policymakers have been given the flexibility to pass new and innovative reforms to their welfare programs and improve and better integrate the services needed to help recipients move into the workplace. Kansas has been a leader amongst the states in welfare reform, by strengthening work requirements, creating new time limits on welfare benefits, and strengthening sanctions on recipients that refuse to fulfill work requirements.

Prior to 2011, work requirements in Kansas had been weakened under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), which led to rapid increases in the number of welfare recipients in the state. According to the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), from 2000 to 2011, “[T]he number of able-bodied adults on cash welfare was increasing by 42 percent in Kansas, while nationally the number on welfare had dropped by a third.”

Kansas’ welfare reform effort began in 2011, when former Gov. Sam Brownback (R) implemented a three-month ban on those who refused to meet work requirements. Under Brownback’s rules, if an individual continued to fail to meet the requirements, the ban would be increased by six to 12 months.

In 2015, Brownback signed a bill that created a three-year lifetime limit on the time people can spend on welfare (with some exceptions made for emergencies). The three-year limit is two years fewer than the federal government’s five-year limit. The law also requires adults to participate in job training or work at least 20 hours per week to keep their benefits after three months in the program and limits welfare recipients to withdrawing $25 from an ATM in a single day when using their electronic benefits transfer card. Additionally, the legislation restricted the use of benefits dollars for non-essential products and services, such as purchases at sporting events, liquor stores, and movie theaters.

In a new study from FGA, Nic Horton and Jonathan Ingram examined Kansas’ welfare reforms and found they caused individuals to reenter the labor force. They also determined the incomes of Kansas families exiting TANF increased substantially, more than doubling in the first year. According to the study, as of 2017, families who left TANF are now earning $48 million more per year than they had while receiving cash assistance. The new incomes of those leaving the welfare system increased 104 percent in one year, $20 million more than they had while on welfare. Four years after the reforms, these same individuals’ incomes increased by 247 percent.

The number of welfare recipients in Kansas also decreased due to the tighter work requirements. This is consistent with the experience of other states that have enacted work requirements. According to The Heritage Foundation, in Maine, many individuals chose to leave the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rather than participate in training or community service, which means these recipients likely had other means of supporting themselves. Since the new reforms were implemented, the caseload in Maine for able-bodied adults without dependent children quickly dropped by 80 percent, falling from 13,332 in December 2014 to 2,678 recipients in March 2015. Heritage estimates the proposed reforms could save taxpayers “around $90 billion over the next 10 years, or roughly 13 percent of the program’s 2018-27 projected spending.”

According to the Alabama Department of Human Resources, an 85 percent drop in food stamp participation occurred after work requirements were put into place on January 1, 2017.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation claims by the end of the first three months of the state’s restored work requirements, the number of adults receiving benefits in three participating Georgia counties dropped 58 percent.

In The Heartland Institute’s Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis, Gary MacDougal, Kate Campaigne, and Dane Wendell argue encouraging work affects more than just household income: “Work improves family well-being economically, by providing a steady source of income and the opportunity to acquire assets, as well as socially and culturally. Work builds self-esteem, imposes order on adults’ lifestyles, creates role models for children, and fosters relationships of respect between adults and between adults and children. Many problems in disadvantaged families often trace back to not having a member of the household in the workforce.”

The real focus of welfare programs must be to provide temporary or supplemental assistance while encouraging work and independence. States should also reform assistance programs that trap low-income Americans in poverty by disincentivizing work. Kansas’ reform can serve as a model for other states to follow.

The following documents examine welfare reform in greater detail.

Work Requirements Are Working for Kansas Families: How Welfare Reform Increases Incomes and Improves Lives
In this study, Nic Horton and Jonathan Ingram of the Foundation for Government Accountability examine Kansas’ welfare reforms and how recipients fared after leaving the program. Their results found the reforms have led to more employment, higher incomes, and less dependency on government services.

The Power of Work: How Kansas’ Welfare Reform is Lifting Americans out of Poverty
In this study published by the Foundation for Government Accountability, Nic Horton and Jonathan Ingram examine Kansas’ welfare reforms and the effect they have had on food stamp enrollment. “With no welfare work requirement or time limit, just one in five able-bodied adults on food stamps worked. Nearly 93 percent of them were in poverty, most in severe poverty. Since implementing work requirements and time limits, the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps has dropped by 75 percent,” the authors wrote.

Kansas Lawmakers Approve Welfare-to-Work Reforms
Michael Bates writes in Budget & Tax News about a new bill in Kansas that makes reforms to the state’s welfare entitlement program. “If approved by the House and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback (R), Senate Bill 372 will enact reforms discouraging long-term dependence and welfare fraud and will encourage welfare recipients to seek employment,” wrote Bates.

Welfare Reform Report Card: A State-by-State Analysis of Anti-Poverty Performance and Welfare Reform Policies
In 2015, The Heartland Institute published an updated version of its Welfare Reform Report Card. This report card compiles extensive data on five “inputs” and five “outputs” of state welfare and anti-poverty programs and assigns a final grade to each state for its welfare policies.

Welfare Rules Database 
The Urban Institute’s Welfare Rules Database provides a “comprehensive, sophisticated resource for comparing cash assistance programs between states” and for researching changes in cash assistance rules between states.

The Work Versus Welfare Tradeoff: 2013  
The Cato Institute estimates the value of the full package of welfare benefits available to a typical recipient in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The study found welfare benefits outpace the income most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the income gap between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years.

Maine Food Stamp Work Requirement Cuts Non-Parent Caseload by 80 Percent
Robert Rector, Rachel Sheffield, and Kevin Dayaratna of The Heritage Foundation examine Maine’s food stamp reforms and discuss how they could act as a model for other states. “The Maine food stamp work requirement is sound public policy. Government should aid those in need, but welfare should not be a one-way handout. Able-bodied, nonelderly adults who receive cash, food, or housing assistance from the government should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. Giving welfare to those who refuse to take steps to help themselves is unfair to taxpayers and fosters a harmful dependence among beneficiaries,” the authors wrote.

Comparing Program Participation of TANF and Non-TANF Families Before and During a Time of Recession
Shelley K. Irving examines whether participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has increased and whether employment has decreased during the current economic recession. The study also compares participation in other assistance programs based on welfare and poverty status before and during the economic recession.


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