Martin Hawver
Guest Columnist
One of the more interesting little gambits by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services—the state’s welfare agency—has paid off, sorta, and Statehouse insiders are wondering if this is how things are going to be in the future.
That gambit was an announcement that SRS would close nine offices where people go to sign up for social services they can’t afford to pay for themselves, including food stamps, aid to families with dependent children and health services.
The premise: SRS, which saw big budget cuts by the Legislature earlier this year, was looking for ways to save money, and closing offices saves rent and utilities and such. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Oh, the people who need the SRS assistance? Well, they just figure out how to get to some nearby town for SRS help, or they trot down to the library or maybe a grocery store and use a computer there to request services. Not exactly a compassionate way to treat the poor and probably humiliating—trying to sign up for assistance to buy food for your children or to get health care or seeking intervention to protect children from abuse while sitting next to some kid at the library playing computer games.
Well, Lawrence and Douglas County didn’t want their local SRS office closed, so they came up with about $450,000 to pay the rent to a private landlord for the buildings SRS used. Their problem is resolved for two years.
But there are eight other towns—Coffeyville, Fort Scott, Garnett, Lyndon, Marysville, McPherson, Pratt and Wellington—also slated for office closures. And they’ve seen the pattern here.
Pratt is considering ways to come up with rent money for its SRS office. No talk yet about the other towns which are slated for office closures, sending their townspeople to another town to seek state assistance to which they are legally entitled.
Is the key here pay the rent or SRS makes your down-on-their-luck friends and neighbors travel to get assistance? So far, it looks like it.
It also looks a little like a state agency extorting money from local government, using the poor it is supposed to assist as its weapon. Well, maybe not extortion but surely some lesser included offense.
And you have to wonder in the case of Lawrence, if when its two-year financing of its SRS facilities expires the politics of all this changes. Instead of protesting the state closing an SRS office, will locals protest local government for not financing convenient, easily accessible social services for its townspeople?
There’s a somewhat surprising corollary in pay-for-it-yourself state government services. Counties pony up the money for district courts, provide the courtrooms, the offices, the utilities, the parking and such, and have for decades. The state provides the judges and staff.
But care for the poor seems different, doesn’t it?
If a county can finance office space for a state agency, what are the chances that some city might have an old storefront that could be used rent-free for SRS administration, or a Department of Transportation office? Just what has SRS started here?
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