Does the South Show Kentucky’s Conservative Future?

Jan 4, 2016

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin
Credit Alix Mattingly

For decades, Republicans have predicted that Kentucky was becoming a Red State.

The prediction seemed more reliable than ever late last year, when Matt Bevin was elected governor. Bevin, a Republican businessman, promised reforms seen currently in much of the conservative South.

“I think Kentucky is now moving into that red column, and we are joining our neighbors to the South,” said Steve Robertson, then the chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Bevin, who was supported by Tea Party factions in the Republican Party, promised to scale back the state’s expansion of Medicaid — which he started working on Wednesday — as well as setting his sights on other welfare programs in the state.

Among his proposals was a plan to drug-test welfare recipients. Bevin said during the Republican gubernatorial primary he would also take aim at what he calls “New Deal-type” programs.

The broad spectrum of plans from the new governor means Kentucky could start looking like the state’s southern neighbors, and welfare for low-income people could be scarcer than it’s been in the past couple decades.

That’s what’s played out in other states with conservative leadership, according to a piece published last week in The Washington Post.

“Across the five states in the region — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina — some 58 percent of impoverished families with children received welfare in the pre-Clinton years … Now, that percentage has tumbled below 10 percent,” according to data compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and published by the Post.

Those states have had Republican-led governments for much of the past few decades. In contrast, Bevin is just the second GOP governor in Kentucky in more than 40 years, and the state House remains under control of the Democratic Party and its favorable views on welfare programs. The Democrats’ state House majority, however, has narrowed in recent weeks.

Echoing the view of other conservative governors, Bevin has cited welfare programs as contributors to the poverty problem. He said the system keeps people from acting in their best interests, Kentucky Public Radio’s Ryland Barton reported.

“[Recipients] have just enough financial wherewithal to not have to work, to not have to be gainfully engaged and participating in civic environments around them, and then they make poor personal choices,” Bevin said in May.

Liz Schott, an expert on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs who works for CBPP, said:  “A number of the states in the South — and I wouldn’t yet put Kentucky among them — have really disappeared the safety net.”

In Schott’s view, the timing for a scale-back of the safety net couldn’t be worse, especially for rural pockets of the South. That includes rural Kentucky.

According to Schott and data from CBPP, TANF caseloads have decreased about 14 percent even as poverty has increased in Kentucky.

CBPP analyzed data from the Census’ Current Population Survey that found the number of families in Kentucky who are living in poverty went from 131,600 in 1995 to 150,800 nearly 10 years later. The number of families in Kentucky in the deepest forms of poverty went from 47,800 to 70,300 in the same timeframe.

“There has been a rise in poverty — and welfare has not caused that rise in poverty,” Schott said.

Poverty is an issue that the South has historically struggled with. Last year, 41 percent of Americans in the South lived below the federal poverty limit, according to a January 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. That’s compared to 46 percent of Americans in the South 50 years earlier, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty.”

Schott said the big question moving forward is whether the money used for welfare programs in Kentucky will actually be used to improve the economy and create more job prospects for Kentuckians.

“Or are they going to sort of raid the federal and state welfare dollars, and use that for essentially plugging state budget holes to enable them to give more tax cuts to business?” Schott said. “What we have seen in a lot of Southern states in particular is exactly that.”

The issue of funding for welfare programs runs parallel to another one facing Southern states with large pockets of rural areas. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that while there has been a decrease in unemployment across the board, employment in cities is still far outpacing rural towns across the country.

James Ziliak, the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, has said decades of a shifting labor force has been mostly to blame for the rise in poverty in pockets of Kentucky. He said companies are continually looking for higher-skilled workers.

“Rural America — including rural parts of the Commonwealth of Kentucky — have lagged behind in adequately investing in its people and keeping up with the changing demands of technology and the needs of firms,” Ziliak said.