The Wichita Eagle headline sounds awful: “Kansas child welfare agency trying to undercut research cited by incoming governor.” This is not an op-ed headline. This is a news story headline. In a world where most people read only headlines, words matter.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of “undercut” in this context means “to undermine or destroy the force, value, or effectiveness of.” To “challenge,” however, means “to dispute especially as being unjust, invalid, or outmoded.” As shall be seen, “challenge” is the much more accurate and less accusatory word.
In the way of background, incoming Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has been citing for months on the campaign trail research done at the University of Kansas that links welfare reform enacted by the Brownback administration with child maltreatment.
For months, the Kansas Department for Children and Families has disputed the conclusions of the researchers. What upsets Kelly and apparently the Eagle editors is that two weeks before Kelly was set to take office DCF released a report challenging the KU report.
This is not just some last cheap shot as the headline implies. The legislature, as the Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman concedes, “placed [the reforms] into law.” He adds, “Kelly would need legislative approval in order to reverse the policies.” Shorman, for the record, uses the word “restrictions,” not “reforms,” another sneaky example of semantic bias.
With the Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House, legislators have every right to know whether the KU report is valid. The report Kelly has been citing was written by Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, an associate professor of social welfare, and Donna Ginther, an Economics professor, both at KU. A quick romp through their Twitter feeds suggests that there is a better chance KU will win the national football championship next year than that either one of these professors voted for Sam Brownback.
The assessment of their report by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland is flat-out brutal. These guys are no lightweights. The lead author, Neil Gilbert, is Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and Social Service at Berkeley as well as the director of the Center for Comparative Family Welfare and Poverty Research and the founding director of the Family Welfare Research Group. On the face of things, he has much stronger credentials than the KU profs and a better claim on objectivity.
“Although the authors have called their publicized findings ‘preliminary,’ in fact, their findings have entered the policy debate and, therefore, are fairly subject to outside assessment,” say Gilbert et al.
“Reviewing the public materials in support of their findings, we have raised a number of questions,” they continue. “To recount, we judge that: (1) the causal hypothesis is based on incomplete data and analysis, (2) the research design is not sufficiently described for assessment, (3) there are incomplete and shifting variables concerning TANF and other program changes, (4) the changes in child welfare policies and practices apparently are not taken into account, (5) the growth in substance abuse is not sufficiently taken into account, and (6) the authors’ interpretation of results is problematic.” But otherwise . . .
In sum, the findings of the KU pair are as close to meaningless as an academic report gets. Laura Kelly has no right to be angry, but she has every right to be embarrassed.