A leading Kansas child advocacy organization supports creation of a Kansas program providing partial pay to employees who take time off work to care for a new child or health needs of another family member.
John Wilson, the incoming president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Kansas Action for Children, said a handful of states adopted laws allowing employees, employers or the state to contribute to a fund providing up to 12 weeks of financial support for job-protected time away from work. The leave would be devoted to bonding with a child entering the family or to care for a seriously ill family member.
“It’s the type of program we think Kansas is ready for, because we may not be able to compete with other states in terms of mountains and Silicon Valley and other things, but what we could do is make Kansas the best state to raise and be a child and to have a family,” Wilson said.
He told the Capitol Insider, a podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal, the idea was among policy reforms endorsed by KAC to improve the lives of children from birth to 5 years of age. At this stage of development, he said, the stakes were high for kids and the long-term return on investment in the family safety net could be most pronounced.
“It’s important to understand that early childhood is both a time of great promise and opportunity, but it’s also a time of considerable risk,” said Wilson, a former state representative from Lawrence. “It is the time when all of us are developing our social and emotional skills, our executive functioning skills, those things that translate into behaviors that allow us to do well in school and, later on, do well in life.”
The policy challenge in Kansas was recently illustrated by a report indicating an average of 51,000 Kansas children lived in concentrated poverty from 2013 to 2017. That meant 30% of people in a neighborhood had incomes below the federal poverty line. In a broader sense, an estimated 100,000 Kansas kids experienced periods of poverty during that era.
Answers to the prevalence of poverty touch upon health care, education, nutrition, housing, transportation, child care and must feature the presence of nurturing adults for children, Wilson said.
“Policy choices made here in Topeka or in Washington, D.C., do have an impact on the lives of people and the health of people,” Wilson said. “Over the years, in our state, decisions have been made by lawmakers that restrict access to work and family support programs that we know can improve the health of kids.”
At the center of debate in Kansas were laws enacted in 2015 and 2016, created under the banner of the HOPE Act, to reduce reliance of impoverished Kansans on government aid and to nudge them closer to financial self-sufficiency. For example, Kansas’ lifetime cap on Temporary Assistance for Need Families was set at 24 months despite a maximum benefit period of 48 months under the federally financed program.
The GOP-led Legislature joined with then-Gov. Sam Brownback to place the limitations in state law rather than rely on executive orders that could be easily reversed by another governor.
Wilson said the legal restrictions in Kansas on access to food stamps, cash assistance or child-care subsidies made it more difficult for adults to find and keep jobs, but also contributed to elevation of general household stress. Contraction of the safety net in Kansas contributed to growth in the number of Kansas children placed in foster care, he said.
“I believe everybody in the statehouse, Republicans and Democrats, they share the same values that we do as an organization,” Wilson said. “We want every Kansan emotionally and physically and mentally able to contribute to their community and do what they can to support their families.