Gov. Sam Brownback announces mentoring program for welfare recipients

Gov. Sam Brownback unveils a new mentoring program for welfare recipients at a meeting of the Social Services Policy Council.
Gov. Sam Brownback unveils a new mentoring program for welfare recipients at a meeting of the Social Services Policy Council. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled a mentoring program for welfare recipients Wednesday, a program he hopes will help lift low-income families out of poverty.

The program aims to reduce the amount of time participants rely on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, more commonly known as welfare, by pairing them with community volunteers and helping them pursue education and employment. It is based on a similar program used by the Kansas Department of Corrections to curb recidivism.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families plans to recruit 1,100 mentors to pair with TANF recipients this year and launch a similar program for youths aging out of the state’s foster care program in July.

“I’m asking Kansans all across the state as this program is rolled out to sign up, help out and to mentor somebody that’s in poverty to help them get out of poverty,” said Brownback, who first floated the idea in October.

“This is our job, everybody, as a state to help people and to help each other. We’ve got government programs, but that’s not enough. We need to put hearts into it.”

The governor’s wife, Mary Brownback, was the first volunteer to sign up. She encouraged other Kansans to do the same.

“It’s a little bit like parenting or honestly being a friend and telling them ‘really, I think you should do this’ and ‘this might be a good idea,’ ” the first lady said after signing the paperwork.

Jim Eckels, the program’s director, said the DCF will reach out to faith congregations around the state to help recruit mentors. The agency will offer them training and pair them with welfare recipients for a 12-month commitment.

Participation will be voluntary for welfare recipients, Eckels said, adding that the hope is the mentoring relationship “will blossom and grow into a pathway for this individual to move forward and become self-sufficient.”

Back into workforce

Brownback has made reducing poverty a focal point of his second term, repeatedly emphasizing his desire to get people off assistance programs and back into the workforce.

The DCF calls the program HOPE Mentoring – an acronym that stands for Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone. That also was the name of a welfare reform bill the governor successfully pushed last session that limits the amount of time a person can receive TANF to 36 months over a lifetime compared with the federal limit of five years.

The mentoring program will be paid for by the TANF grant the state receives from the federal government. It is projected to cost about $177,000 this fiscal year, which ends in June, and $350,000 next fiscal year, according to a spokeswoman for the DCF.

TANF caseloads have dropped in recent years as Brownback has pushed for a series of welfare reforms. A total of 13,048 people across the state received TANF benefits in November – three-quarters of them children – compared with an average of 38,963 people per month when Brownback took office in 2011.

“It seems to me that we’re already doing a pretty good job of the amount of time families spend on TANF,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president of Kansas Action for Children, an advocacy group. “I think really the focus should be getting families what they need, which is cash assistance to pay for housing, diapers and child care as opposed to getting families mentors.”

Cotsoradis said nonprofits, such as Circles in Wichita, already offer mentoring to low-income families. “I’m not sure reinventing the wheel makes sense,” she said. “I think it would make more sense to prioritize restoring access to services before we create a new program.”

Working poor

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, said she does not object to the idea of mentoring but that she objects to the notion that people on welfare should be viewed as similar to people in the corrections system. She said many people receiving TANF have either been laid off or work a low-wage job and need cash assistance to support their families.

“It seems like the assumption is that they need to be motivated to be more positive, to achieve, to basically pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” Finney said. “But ... from my experience, a lot of people that I know who have to get on TANF, it’s usually someone who’s having a hard time finding a job with a livable wage. … Those issues go more to economic issues than a behavior or not wanting to succeed.

“So don’t get me wrong. I do think having a mentor is a good idea, but we need more internships, we need more technical training,” Finney said. “We need more opportunities to create better jobs. … A lot of working poor in Kansas are struggling just to make ends meet. I know people who’ve got three small-wage jobs just to pay their rent.”

The mentoring application is available on the DCF’s website for Kansans who want to participate. Social media users noticed that the agency included “Dr.,” “Rev.,” “Mr.” and “Mrs.” as options for title but had failed to include “Ms.” as an option for women.

When asked about that, Theresa Freed, the agency’s spokeswoman, called it a minor oversight and said she appreciated someone pointing it out so it could be fixed quickly. “We welcome and encourage everyone who has an interest to become a volunteer,” she said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3