Kansas Seeks Federal Grant for Program to Promote Marriage

While turning down one federal handout last week, the administration of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was applying for a different one.

No, thanks: $31.5 million for implementing the new federal health care law.

Please remit: $6.6 million to promote marriage.

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The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is seeking $2.2 million a year for three years to pay for counseling that encourages unwed parents to marry. Free marriage licenses would be given to those who do.

State officials portrayed the grant request as the state’s first major marriage initiative aimed at reducing child poverty.

In giving up the $31 million, the governor said that every state should prepare for less federal cash, given that so many questions are swirling about government spending.

So why ask for marriage money?

Kansas Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the Brownback team is picking grants based on how they fit with its worldview.

Turning down the $31 million made a statement opposing President Barack Obama’s health care initiative, Hensley said. Promoting marriage was another matter for the Republican governor, he said.

“When it benefits their philosophical ideology, everything is fine,” Hensley said. “Where it doesn’t fit in or goes against them — either from a policy or political standpoint — then the federal money isn’t OK.”

Brownback’s staff didn’t detail why one grant would be more acceptable than the other, but it outlined how Kansas decides which grants to seek and which to forgo.

“The administration doesn’t have a blanket policy regarding grants. … Each potential grant and the federal requirements that come along with them are evaluated on a case-by-case basis with an increased watchful eye toward long-term mandates with short-term funding streams,” according to statements released to The Star.

Asked if other grants had been rejected, Brownback’s staff said it’s more accurate to say the state has declined to apply for some grants.

The state, for example, isn’t pursuing a slice of the $900 million that the federal government will give out over the next five years to help communities reduce chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

A spokeswoman for the state health department said the grant wasn’t in line with state priorities and there are concerns about strings attached to the money. She also said the state could use some existing funds to implement some of the same programs.

The marriage program is part of the effort Brownback promised early this year when he nominated Rob Siedlecki, a former chief of staff in the Florida health department, to run Kansas’ social services agency.

Brownback has long been an advocate of promoting healthy marriages, dating to his days in the U.S. Senate when he said that children raised by married couples are more likely to succeed in school, less likely to have behavior problems and less likely to live in poverty.

Now his social service agency — headed by a former board member of the National Fatherhood Initiative — is writing plans for how to carry out that agenda.

“The governor’s priority issue is reducing child poverty in Kansas. This is part of that approach,” said Angela De Rocha, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

“There is an unlimited number of studies and academic publications that indicate that children who live in two-parent-family homes are unbelievably less likely to live in poverty than children who live in single-parent-family homes.”

Under the SRS plan, the federal government is being asked to pay for sending unwed parents — if they volunteer to go — to six counseling sessions offered by either secular or faith-based counseling services chosen by the state. The parents would choose the kind of counseling service they wanted.

If the parents completed the program and decided to marry, the federal grant would pay for their state marriage license, which now costs $85.50.

About 19,000 unwed couples a year give birth in Kansas. The state estimates that more than 7,600 mothers or couples — or 40 percent — would begin counseling at $25 to $50 per session. Sixty percent of those are expected to finish the program and qualify for a free license.

Even if marriage does not result, the grant application said, the parents will have learned how to maintain relationships and work together for the good of their child.

Richard Fry of Olathe is a member of a coalition that has been working to stop the new health care plan in Kansas.

His group has been urging the state not to accept any money — federal or otherwise — that would lead to implementation of the plan here.

Overall, Fry said, the state shouldn’t be taking federal money for anything not “absolutely essential.”

Money to promote marriage doesn’t pass muster, Fry said.

“I think that’s a state issue. That’s something the state needs to deal with.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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