Nation & World

Report: No indication that Kansas benefit programs discourage marriage

TOPEKA — Some Kansas state benefit programs may create a financial disincentive to marriage, but auditors who talked to recipients and to state employees found "little evidence that eligibility rules significantly influence clients' decisions about whether to marry," according to a report released Tuesday.

Lawmakers who want to change the rules to promote marriage "likely would have only a limited impact on clients' marital decisions," the audit concluded.

But three Republicans on the Legislative Post Audit Committee suggested that auditors didn’t dig deep enough to find the truth, and leaders at the Department of Health and Environment and Social and Rehabilitative Services say the report illustrates some financial disincentives to marriage.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has voiced support for reforms and new programs that encourage marriage — including a $6.6 million federal grant the state applied for to promote marriage as a way to reduce child poverty. Meanwhile, SRS has announced changes to its policies that require people seeking help from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, food stamps and child care assistance to report income of live-in boyfriends and girlfriends.

Auditors examined the eligibility criteria of 36 state benefit programs. They found that two federal programs for veterans have eligibility rules that financially discourage marriage, 29 other programs across several agencies might discourage marriage depending on circumstances and five do not discourage people from marrying.

One of the veterans programs pays monthly pension benefits to wartime veterans who are permanently or totally disabled. The amount of pension is tied to the veteran’s number of dependents and their income. A spouse’s income, in this case, decreases the pension payment.

The other veteran program is a death benefit that gives monthly payments to widows and unmarried children. If the widow or children marry, they are no longer eligible for payments.

But when auditors talked to the state employees who handle applications for programs and to 23 clients who use direct cash benefits from the temporary assistance to families program, they found most feel the benefit criteria don’t have a significant impact on people’s decision to get married.

The mixed findings and limited number of interviews with employees and recipients prompted three members of the 10-member committee to question whether the audit dug deep enough to find the truth. Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said the audit doesn’t seem to meet scientific research standards, and he suggested the committee consider expanding it.

“Quite frankly, this isn’t an audit that complies with the reputation of post audit,” he said. “I have a higher threshold for our post audits.”

The audit was conducted by the state’s Division of Legislative Post Audit.

Committee members voted to accept the audit, which doesn’t mean they endorse it. Before his motion to accept the audit, Bruce said lawmakers can always change laws that they view as a disincentive for marriage.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, was the lone vote against accepting the audit, which she said seemed subjective. She suggested auditors develop a new survey that starts with a hypothetical premise, such as describing current rules for a benefit program and asking clients whether they’d be more likely to get married if rules were changed to eliminate a disincentive or create an incentive.

Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, is an insurance agent. He said when he talks with clients who cohabitate, he asks if they have a date set for marriage. Peck said many people tell him they don’t plan to marry because of its impact on their government benefits. He suggested that he may be getting a more honest answer than clients provide when a government auditor calls them.

Auditors stood by their results, noting that some programs have privacy rules that blocked them from getting contact information to conduct interviews, and many benefit recipients they could reach declined to respond.

The audit was spurred in part by a 2008 Institute for American Values study that estimates that failed marriages and unwed childbirths cost Kansas $389 million via programs such as Medicaid and the State Child Health Insurance Program, court costs and forgone tax revenue.

Of that $389 million, $175 million is attributed to justice system costs, which includes police work and court costs caused when families break apart as well as crime attributed to childhood poverty. Another $78 million is attributed to Medicaid expenses.

A report released last month by the Census Bureau shows that Kansans marry and divorce at a slightly higher rate than the national average.

But nationally and locally, marriages have been on the decline, with more unmarried couples living together and younger couples delaying marriage as they try to find work in a rocky economy.

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