IOLA, Kan. — Suzan Emmons has done the most she can for the girls. Her small green house has bunnies in the back yard, class pictures proudly displayed on the living room wall, food in the refrigerator. She has scrimped from her annual salary of $14,000 to pay for one dance class each: tap for Elizabeth, jazz for Jaiden.
But far-off political decisions have made the haven that Emmons built for them more precarious.
Five years ago, she rescued Jaiden, her granddaughter, and Elizabeth, her granddaughter’s half sister, from a dangerous home. Today, she doesn't make enough money to qualify for health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. She would qualify for Medicaid under Obamacare’s proposed expansion of the program, but because the Kansas governor turned down federal funds for that expansion, she doesn't qualify there either, leaving her unable to afford insurance coverage.
Meanwhile, dramatic funding cuts at the state levels shuttered the programs that gave the girls a safe place to go when Emmons was at work and that counseled them to overcome their trauma.
The combination of deep tax cuts and austere spending that was supposed to ignite economic growth and reduce dependency have hit hard in the southeastern corner of Kansas, where Emmons lives, a collection of some of the poorest and sickest counties in the state that is sometimes branded the Appalachia of the Midwest.
Emmons is an involuntary participant in a conservative program of tax decreases and spending cuts that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, the policy's main architect, once called a "real-live experiment." The Kansas legislature voted to partially unwind these policies last week, when it raised taxes and spending in a revolt against Brownback.
Brownback had promised that the tax cuts would unleash an economic resurgence strong enough to keep the government funded and lift people out of poverty — a similar narrative to that of Washington Republicans, who are considering a comparable plan that pairs tax reductions with steep cuts to welfare programs. But five years after Brownback's first tax cut, Kansas has become a warning sign about what happens when promised economic growth fails to materialize, leaving families such as Emmons's to deal with the consequences.
“I just hope the country will use Kansas as a case study in what not to do. Because we tried it all. And it failed,” said David Toland, who runs the community organization Thrive. He sat across from Emmons in the attic of a thrift store in downtown Iola, where his organization is housed.
“Kansas is the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is on life support,” Toland said.
“Are you sure it’s not dead?” Emmons asked.
What happened in Kansas
Brownback, a former senator and 2008 presidential candidate, came into the Kansas’s governor’s office in 2011 on promises to eliminate the income tax, reduce the number of people on public assistance, and overhaul public schools.
The changes came quickly. The state limited eligibility for welfare and instilled a lifetime ban on welfare recipients who broke certain rules. It dramatically lowered taxes, by reducing the number of income tax brackets in the state from three to two and slashing rates on both. It also exempted small-business income from taxation entirely — creating what analysts described as a pernicious loophole when individuals started representing themselves as small businesses to qualify.
Yet the fast growth that the state's tax cuts were supposed to generate never appeared.
In each of the past five years, the pace of economic expansion in Kansas has been below that of the country as a whole.
Dan Rickman, an economist at Oklahoma State University who created an index to measure states with similar economies, says that Kansas was performing in step with other similar states before Brownback took office. But after the tax cuts were implemented, it began to lag.
“To be honest, I think it’s their policies,” Rickman said. The economic benefits from tax cuts can take many years to materialize, he said. In the short term, reduced spending hurt the government’s many employees, suppliers and contractors, he said.
The policies also blew a substantial hole in the state’s budget, turning long-standing budget surpluses into yawning shortfalls. To pay its debt, the state government delayed payments to school boards and local agencies, canceled or delayed road maintenance and put off payments to pension funds.
In 2015, Brownback and Republicans in Topeka increased the sales tax to raise more money. Sales taxes are disproportionately paid by the poor, who spend more of their money on everyday goods that are subject to the tax.
Last year, with the reserves all but exhausted, the state drew down $400 million from other sources, the bulk of it from the highway fund, and put off making payments totaling about $200 million.
It wasn't enough. This March, Kansas's Supreme Court ruled that the lack of support for public schools violated the state's constitution, and ordered the government to increase funds.
“That’s essentially lawmakers shaking the couch cushions for change,” said Duane Goossen, the state’s former budget director.
'The experiment has been conducted'
Rural Kansas school systems, which were already burdened with high poverty and mental health issues, saw their budgets fall and class sizes balloon.
In Coffeyville, a small town 70 miles south down a pot-holed two-lane highway from Iola, the superintendent of the school system pointed out that the cuts to the schools were themselves deeply damaging to the local economy.
One of the town’s biggest employers, the school district has seen its budget fall from roughly $13 million to $11.5 million in the last nine years. “That’s a lot of jobs being lost in the community,” superintendent Craig Correll said.
As Brownback predicted, the lack of funds made communities like Coffeyville and Iola band together and get more creative to support one another. They turned to grants and pooled funds between programs to plug funding gaps, and had charities fill in for government services. But even so, locals say that the system has left many people behind, especially those who are most vulnerable.
In Iola, community workers talk of tragedies that could have easily been prevented.
Holly Jerome, a director at the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, spoke about a patient who lost a leg to diabetes and a disabled drug addict who couldn't go back to work because his insurance wouldn't cover a nonaddictive pain medication. Angela Henry, project director of the community organization Safe Base, told of a 13-year-old girl who lost part of her jaw when her parents couldn’t pay to finish a dental operation, and the packing pellets a dentist put in her tooth rotted.
“The experiment has been conducted, and I don’t know how anyone who looks at data or who hears the stories that we live every day could say the experiment has been successful,” Toland said.
Some of the people who run the schools and community organizations in these small towns are more hopeful now that the Kansas legislature revolted against Brownback and voted to reverse his tax cuts.
But even after the hike, the rich are still paying less and the poor are paying more, and it will take the state a long time to recover.
“The damage from these tax cuts — the financial damage — has been so great that it may take up to a generation to really repair it,” Goossen said.
Some conservatives say that the state just hasn’t cut spending enough — including Brownback, who was not pleased by the legislature’s vote last week to overcome his veto, reverse his tax cuts and direct more funding to the schools.
“I think it’s wrong for the long-term view of the state of Kansas. I think it’s wrong for growth,” Brownback said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a positive for this state moving down the road.”
In the gap
Standing on the porch of her little house, Emmons described how she came to fall in a limbo-like insurance situation that is known as the Medicaid gap. In March, the governor had decided to veto a plan that would have expanded Medicaid coverage to 150,000 more Kansans — including herself.
“What does veto mean?” Jaiden, her 10-year-old granddaughter asked, as she fidgeted, impatient to head to the nearby pool and practice diving off the diving board.
“It means the governor said no to the plan,” Emmons said.
“He sucks,” Jaiden said.
Emmons earns about $14,000 a year from cleaning houses 40 hours a week — too much to qualify for Kansas’ Medicaid program. If she was living by herself, she would qualify for Obamacare subsidies to make her health insurance more affordable. But because she took in the girls and her household has expanded to three, she also earns too little to qualify for subsidies to buy insurance through the marketplace.
She says she can’t afford insurance premiums outright, which would come to nearly half her earnings. At 57, she is going further into debt and has no hope of retirement.
In February, Emmons traveled to Topeka, where she gave testimony urging lawmakers to expand Medicaid in the state.
Other programs on which the family depends are also being squeezed. A community program that gave her daughters a safe place to go when Emmons is at work has seen funding cuts of 90 percent, and this year it canceled its summer program entirely.
She dreams that her girls might one day go to college — but more realistically, she hopes that they will have a better life than their mother and father. She hasn't heard from them in five years.
“If I had not taken the girls out of their situation, they would have followed in their mothers’ footsteps. You know they would, because that’s all they know,” she said.
“I’ve said all along, I’m not looking for a handout. Nobody should ever get anything for free,” she said. “You should work for what you get. But they make it harder and harder every day.”
Max Ehrenfreund reported from Washington, D.C.