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Public Assistance and Government Welfare Programs

Renee Shaw and guests discuss public assistance and government welfare programs, including Medicaid and food stamps. Guests: Sec. Adam Meier, Ky Cabinet for Health and Family Services; Ashley Spalding, Ph.D., senior policy analyst at the Ky Center for Economic Policy; Anne-Tyler Morgan, senior fellow with the Pegasus Institute; and James Ziliak, Ph.D., of the UK Center for Poverty Research.
Season 26 Episode 31 Length 56:35 Premiere: 08/26/19


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Debating Changes to Government Public Assistance Programs

Nearly a third of all Kentuckians receive government-assisted health care coverage, from 1.2 million people on traditional and expanded Medicaid to nearly 90,000 youth in the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But this vital medical coverage consumes a significant portion of the state’s annual budget – more than $2.3 billion, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS).

Proposed changes to Medicaid and other federal welfare programs could save the state money, but could also mean fewer people receive assistance on which they depend. KET’s Kentucky Tonight examined the costs and benefits of public assistance and what the changes might mean for Kentuckians. The guests were CHFS Secretary Adam Meier; Anne-Tyler Morgan, a senior fellow at the Pegasus Institute; Ashley Spalding, senior policy analyst for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy; and James Ziliak, an economist and founding director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research.

Traditional Medicaid covers low-income families, children and pregnant women, the elderly, and people with a disability. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act allowed states the option to expand Medicaid coverage to adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $16,000 a year. Kentucky’s Medicaid population now stands at more than 844,000 people receiving traditional coverage, and some 452,000 covered by the expansion.

The ballooning Medicaid rolls have led to higher costs, which are shared between the state and the federal government. When former Gov. Steve Beshear implemented the Medicaid expansion in 2014, the federal government paid all of the costs for coverage. By next year, the state will have to pick up 10 percent of that tab.

Even though it costs the state more money to cover these extra people, Medicaid advocates say it’s a great deal for the commonwealth since the federal government picks up the majority of the bill. Plus, thousands of Kentuckians that were previously uninsured have gained health coverage.

“There are incredible, incredible outcomes happening because of access to health care,” says Ashley Spalding of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “Expansion states are seeing lower rates of mortality… Infant mortality is going down.”

Spalding also says the Medicaid expansion has also created good-paying health care jobs and helped sustain rural hospitals.

From the perspective of the Bevin Administration, other results have been disappointing. For example, fewer than 10 percent of Medicaid recipients have scheduled a preventive health visit with their physician, according CHFS Secretary Adam Meier.

“So, the conclusions right now are that we still have a lot of work to go,” says Meier. “We are at the bottom of every list you want to be at the top of as it relates to health outcomes, and we’re still spending a lot of money.”

Proposed Changes to Medicaid in Kentucky
Meier says it will take years of work to foster the behavior changes that will lead to better health outcomes. He says that’s one reason Gov. Matt Bevin wanted to pursue the Medicaid demonstration waiver: to focus the state’s limited resources on things his administration believes can improve public health.

That waiver, called Kentucky HEALTH, includes a work or community engagement requirement of 20 hours a week for some Medicaid recipients. It also requires modest premiums for coverage and copayments for certain services. Bevin said the state cannot afford to maintain the full Medicaid expansion, but by implementing the waiver, taxpayers would save some $330 million.

In January 2018, Kentucky became the first state in the nation to win federal approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) to make a work requirement a condition of Medicaid coverage. But six months later a federal judge blocked the official launch of the waiver, saying regulators didn’t adequately consider the effects on people who might lose coverage under the plan.

(The Bevin Administration originally estimated that 95,000 Kentuckians might lose Medicaid coverage under the waiver. A more recent study published last month by the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates 48,000 people could be at risk for losing coverage under the proposed work requirement.)

The state has submitted an updated waiver proposal to CMS, but it has also been blocked by the courts and has yet to be implemented.

“Kentucky HEALTH… is known as by far the most complex waiver demonstration project submitted to CMS,” says Anne-Tyler Morgan of the Pegasus Institute. “Any program that requires wholesale change will take some time to iron out the kinks.”

Beyond simply improving health outcomes, Meier says the waiver seeks to help people improve their job prospects so they can earn more money, obtain employer-provided health insurance, and eventually move off public assistance.

“We need to make sure we’re focusing on finding ways to interact and engage with these members,” says Meier, “so that we can wrap around resources that they don’t know have been available to them, so we can connect them with education, job training, volunteer opportunities, child-care assistance, whatever that barrier is that’s keeping them from being able to create a self-sustainable environment for their family.”

Do Work Requirements Actually Work?
But work requirements in public assistance programs have produced mixed results. When Arkansas implemented a similar Medicaid work requirement, some 12,000 people lost coverage for failing to properly report their hours.

University of Kentucky economist and poverty researcher James Ziliak says work requirements instituted in 1996 for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offer an important lesson. He says as people found work and earned more money, they lost their public benefits, which resulted in a net loss in income.

“There is no evidence of long-term income gains amongst this population,” says Ziliak. “We actually did see an increase in deep poverty in the years after welfare reform.”

Broader economic factors could also make an impact on the success of Kentucky’s proposed work requirement, according to Ziliak. He says many parts of the state have limited employment opportunities, which would make it harder for Medicaid beneficiaries to find a job and meet their work obligation. He says economic prosperity won’t come from penalizing people by taking away their health care because they can’t find work where they live.

“It’s not obvious to me that doing this demonstration [waiver] is necessarily going to be a cost-saver for the state in the long run,” says Ziliak. “In the short run, maybe there’ll be some savings, but it’s not obvious at all in the long run.”

Ashley Spalding of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy agrees.

“If we want to improve health in our state, we shouldn’t be kicking people off of health care,” she says. “We need to be investing in and making sure that we have better jobs, good jobs, so that people can be economically secure.”

Changes to SNAP
Medicaid recipients aren’t the only people facing work requirements. Last year, as the economy continued to improve, the state reinstituted a work requirement for those who receive food stamps under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To retain their benefits, adults must work, get job training, or volunteer 20 hours a week.

More than 525,000 Kentuckians receive SNAP assistance. The average benefit in the commonwealth is $135 per person per month. Spaulding says one in 10 Kentucky workers receives SNAP benefits.

“As work-reporting requirements have gone into place for adults who do not have children and do not have disabilities, we’ve seen 21,000 people have their food assistance taken away because they weren’t able to meet the requirements,” says Spalding.

But Meier says the state’s current economic climate creates a perfect opportunity for these adults to find work.

“Right now we’re at record low unemployment for this state,” says Meier, “so if there’s ever a time where we should be looking at availing ourselves to the full program, it’s now.”

More changes could be coming to SNAP. The Trump Administration wants to update eligibility requirements for the program that could save the federal government $2.5 billion a year. But it also might cost 3 million Americans their food-stamp benefits.

The Trump plan would tighten income and asset limits for those seeking food stamps. Kentucky is among 40 states that have waived the asset requirements for years. Spalding says re-applying those asset limits would greatly reduce the number of Kentuckians who are able to receive food stamps.

Critics of food stamps have long argued that the program is rife with fraud. But Morgan says the problem isn’t as large as some people believe. She contends fraud is not the fault of people on welfare, but rather arises from how the system encourages people to stay out of the employment market.

“People respond to market forces,” says Morgan, “so naturally if we have incentivized people to rely on state assistance because jobs pay less, then that is a problem.”

Ziliak says fraud in the system will likely persist, but he says the problem dropped dramatically after the federal government switched from paper food stamps to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. He says SNAP fraud is now at about 1 percent nationally.

Welfare reform advocates have also pushed for mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. But Ziliak and Morgan say drug testing has proven expensive and ineffective for states to operate. Ziliak adds that says research shows that drug use among people on welfare is no greater than among the general American population.

So this is yet another mechanism that creates a real barrier for people to seek assistance when they actually need it because they just don’t want to deal with the hassle,” says Ziliak.

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Season 26 Episodes

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Gubernatorial Transition

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City and County Issues

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Hemp's Impact

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Election 2019 Recap

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Election 2019 Preview

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Candidates for Governor

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Lieutenant Governor Candidates

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Attorney General Candidates

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Secretary of State

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Commissioner of Ag; Auditor of Public Accounts; State Treas

S26 E33 Length 1:26:40 Premiere Date 09/30/19

K-12 Public Education

S26 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/09/19

Public Assistance and Government Welfare Programs

S26 E31 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 08/26/19

Energy in Kentucky

S26 E30 Length 56:40 Premiere Date 08/12/19

Public Pension Reform

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Quasi-Governmental Pensions

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S26 E27 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/15/19

Public Education

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Immigration and Border Security

S26 E23 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/08/19

Prospects for Criminal Justice Reform

S26 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/01/19

Issues in the 116th Congress

S26 E21 Length 56:37 Premiere Date 06/24/19

Trends Influencing the 2019 General Election

S26 E20 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/10/19

Previewing the 2019 Primary Election

S26 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/20/19

Democratic Primary Candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor

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Republican Attorney General Candidates, Primary Race 2019

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Candidates for Secretary of State 2019 Primary

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State Auditor; State Treasurer, Primary Election 2019

S26 E15 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/01/19

Commissioner of Agriculture, Primary Election

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2019 General Assembly

S26 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/18/19

Legislation in the 2019 General Assembly

S26 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/18/19

Ongoing Debate on Sports Betting

S26 E12 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/25/19

Bail Reform

S26 E11 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/18/19

Medical Marijuana

S26 E10 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/04/19

Recapping the Start of the 2019 General Assembly

S26 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/14/19

2019 General Assembly

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Special Session on Pensions/Education Issues

S26 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/17/18

Medicaid in Kentucky

S26 E5 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/10/18

Immigration Issues

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Mass Shootings, Gun Safety, and Concealed Carry Laws

S26 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/19/18

Recap of Election 2018

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Election 2018 Preview

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Renee Shaw hosts a 2024 legislative session preview. Scheduled guests: State Representative Chad Aull (D-Lexington); State Representative Stephanie Dietz (R-Edgewood); State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville); and State Senator Amanda Mays Bledsoe (R- Lexington). A 2023 KET production.

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