Brownback sets up meetings across state to discuss child poverty

Child welfare advocates say they are pleased that Gov. Sam Brownback has initiated meetings to address childhood poverty but are concerned about some earlier Brownback actions.

“We’re delighted to see the governor elevate the conversation,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children.

But Cotsoradis said she is worried about a directive from Brownback to state agencies to reduce Children’s Initiatives Fund expenditures in their proposed budget submissions. Some of those submissions have proposed cuts of nearly 30 percent, she said.

If approved by the Legislature next year, those cuts “would have a devastating impact,” on programs that provide newborn screenings, early childhood education and other services to children and their families, she said. Funding for the CIF comes from payments made to the state from the master tobacco settlement, which in turn goes to programs that serve about 200,000 Kansas children.

Nearly a quarter of Kansas children are living in poverty, the governor’s office said.

Brownback has said reducing the percentage of children living in poverty is one of his top goals.

“Studies show children who grow up in poverty are less likely to succeed in school and later in life,” Brownback said.

Brownback has set up three meetings “to gather insights and strategies to reduce childhood poverty, increase childhood educational outcomes and decrease child abuse and neglect.”

He has put Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. in charge of the meetings.

“Every Kansan has a stake in the outcome of this initiative,” Siedlecki said. “I am hoping that everyone concerned about childhood poverty will attend these meetings and participate in these discussions, regardless of their vocation or background,” he said.

But the format and times of the meetings have raised some concerns.

The meetings are from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., which will decrease the chance of people who work during the day to attend.

And the format of the meetings, which Brownback has called “town hall meetings,” will have those attending divided into small groups for discussions with a facilitator at each table. Attendees also are being asked to register before attending.

Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator of Kansas National Organization for Women, said the format and time of the meetings will thwart open dialogue.

“It prevents the expression of legitimate public concerns about the issue of childhood poverty,” she said.

Brownback’s office disagrees. The format allows all participants to be heard and have input, said Brownback’s spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

It is the same format the Brownback administration used for meetings held on Medicaid issues, which Jones-Sontag said received a lot of positive impact.

As far as having the meetings during the day, she said that will give advocacy groups more of an opportunity to participate. Nighttime meetings are more difficult to attend, she said, especially for people who have children.

By Scott Rothschild

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