Rep. Paul Davis
It’s been a tough year in Kansas. The economy is lagging, state unemployment spiked for the first time in two years and data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that more than 377,000 Kansans are living at or below the federal poverty level (11,139 for an individual and $22,314 for a family of four).
A lot of people are hurting right now, but no one has been more adversely impacted by this recession than children. Nearly a quarter of Kansas children (23.7 percent) now live in poverty. This is an astounding 5 percent increase over 2009 child poverty levels, and it is embarrassingly two percent higher than the national average. As if that weren’t bad enough, almost one in four of impoverished Kansas children are categorized as living in ‘extreme poverty.’
Recent data from the Pew Research Center tells us that minorities make up an increasingly disproportionate share of those who live in poverty. The typical white household has $113,149 in wealth while the typical black household has $5,677 in wealth. A third of black families have zero or negative wealth. The most awful statistic is that the disparity in these numbers has doubled over the last two decades. This isn’t a problem, it is a crisis. And it just isn’t a crisis for just the black community, it is a crisis for Kansans and all Americans.
These figures are tragic. But unfortunately, if you’ve been following the actions of the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Brownback, they shouldn’t surprise you.
Last year, the Republican controlled Legislature leveled severe cuts to services and programs that were designed to lift children up out of poverty. Then, after the session adjourned, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services announced numerous policy changes that will make it more difficult for families to access the critical services that withstood the Legislature’s ax.
There are many opinions about programs that provide government assistance. This is understandable, but let’s be clear: we aren’t talking about couch potatoes who sit at home and abuse the system. This is about children. Programs that help our children are an investment to ensure that no economic recession will hinder any child’s opportunity to rise up and become a productive, contributing, welfare-free adult. We can only break the cycle of poverty if we give the next generation a chance to succeed.
This is why, with revenues on the uptick and almost $200 million in the state coffers, I am concerned that Gov. Brownback has announced his intention to eliminate – or significantly reduce – the state income tax. Other states who have followed this path have seen the development of a much more regressive tax structure that includes higher sales and property taxes. Sales and property taxes disproportionately burden the poor, which makes the cycle of poverty even harder to break.
I agree that we should reform our tax structure, but only if it gives everyone a fair shake and provides relief to those who need it the most. If Gov. Brownback and the Republican Legislature believe we have the ability to significantly cut taxes, why not eliminate the sales tax on groceries. Studies show this tax cut would help people in poverty, but I’m not holding my breath that Gov. Brownback will choose to go in this direction. As the latest U.S. Census data proves, Kansans are suffering more than ever. We need a war on poverty on Kansas and it won’t start with a tax cut that most benefits those on the upper end of the income scale and shifts the tax burden to those with the least means to pay.
Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, serves as the Kansas House Minority Leader
Kansans in poverty left behind by budget cuts
Rep. Paul Davis