By DAVE RANNEY
KHI News Service
TOPEKA — Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore on Thursday defended her agency against criticism that it is holding back federal grant dollars that could be used to help needy families.
“I think saving for a rainy day is the prudent thing to do, but to me this looks and feels like a significant amount of money sitting on the sidelines, money that we could be using to address some critical needs,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, who said she was troubled by the idea of mothers of months-old infants going without quality childcare while one of the state’s lead welfare agencies held $48 million in reserve.
But Gilmore said the unspent money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund was good to have.
“It would be less than prudent for there not to be some carryover,” Gilmore said, testifying before the House Committee on Children and Seniors.
The fund currently has about $48 million in it.
More poor children, fewer benefits
Gilmore said she knew of no formula for calculating how much should be left unspent at the end of the fiscal year, but records showed that previous administrations typically ended up with between $30 million and $40 million a year in carrier over balances.
She said the agency was open to discussing how much should be left unspent in the coming fiscal year.
Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed – and legislators are considering – using some of the money to pay for after-school reading programs in southeast and southwest Kansas. The governor’s Reading Roadmap initiative is expected to cost about $9 million a year for three years.
But advocates for children and the poor have criticized DCF for holding the TANF money while the number of Kansas children living in poverty is increasing.
“No one is against there being a balance from one year to the next,” said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, in a later interview. “It just seems like there’s an opportunity here to invest some of these dollars in evidence-based programs that truly make a positive difference in people’s lives. But we don’t see much of that happening.”
Last year, the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, released a report showing that the number of Kansas children living in poverty had increased from 21 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012.
The increase, according to the report, coincided with DCF enacting policies that led to thousands of families being dropped from the state’s TANF rolls.
“What this means is that we have more people living in poverty but receiving fewer benefits,” said Christie Appelhanz, vice president for public affairs at KAC.
A bridge, not a garage
Gilmore did not dispute the statistics, but told committee members that DCF is committed to encouraging low-income parents to find jobs so they can work their way out of poverty.
The TANF program, she said, was meant to be a “bridge” out of poverty, not a “garage.”
Gilmore said DCF now expects mothers receiving TANF-funded public assistance to rejoin the workforce two months after giving birth. Previously, the policy allowed mothers to be at home for six months after a delivery.
“We felt that six months was more than any working person receives,” Gilmore said.
The policy change took effect in May 2013.
The agency has not kept track of how families affected by the policy change have fared as a result of it, Gilmore said.
But she said neither she nor Karen Beckerman, DCF’s director of strengthening families services, had received telephone calls from TANF mothers reporting difficulties.
“That’s not a surprise,” said Leadell Ediger, in a later telephone interview. “If you talked to these moms, they’d say, ‘What’s the use? There’s no one at DCF who’s going to help me.’ And that assumes that when they call DCF, they could actually talk to somebody.”
Ediger is executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, a nonprofit agency based in Salina that works to improve the quality of child care programs.
TANF money is still available for the mothers to help them pay for child care so they can work, but Ediger said it can be difficult for mothers to find quality care for children younger than six months old, especially if the mothers are working evening or night shifts for low wages. Many child-care providers limit the number of TANF-financed children they will take because what the state pays is half or less the going market rate, she said.
Foster care update
Gilmore also updated the committee on the state’s foster care programs, noting that the number of children in the system “was not declining.”
In December, 5,912 foster children were in out-of-home placements, the most in state history.
Also in December, 1,010 foster children were available for adoption; also a record number.
Gilmore said DCF was having trouble hiring child protection workers in sparsely populated western Kansas.
The hiring effort also has been hampered by low salaries and what she called an image problem.
“It’s a myth that we’re not hiring social workers,” she said. “That’s not true.”