When it comes to making sure that welfare recipients don’t use money to pay for fancy vacations and other luxury items, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his Republican cronies are on it.
Gov. Brownback signed a law on Thursday that prohibits people who rely on government assistance to make ends meet from using the money in the way it was intended. It treats poor people like they’re stupid or wasteful, and siphons government funds from them and diverts it into banks’ coffers. The new law is, essentially, a tax on the poor.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (aka welfare) program in Kansas offers cash assistance to low-income families that have at least one child under the age of 18 in the home; pregnant people can also receive funds. The average monthly benefit for a single mother with two kids is $430, an amount that has not increased since 1996.
That’s not enough to live on, and many recipients use it to supplement income earned at low-wage jobs in order to pay for necessities like rent, utilities, and clothes. Kansas Republicans, however, apparently think that women are spending that money on mani-pedis, thong underwear, and Carnival cruises.
If that sounds ridiculous to you, it’s because it is.
TANF assistance is provided by an electronic benefit transaction (EBT) card. Federal law already prohibits using EBT cards at liquor stores, gambling establishments, and adult entertainment venues. Nevertheless, 23 states have enacted laws that further restrict their usage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kansas has just piled on with the most exhaustive list yet. The new law prohibits TANF recipients from using their benefits at dozens of venues and establishments, including nail salons, tattoo parlors, body piercing shops, swimming pools, casinos, concert and sporting events, lingerie shops, video arcades, betting tracks, and on and on.
The law even prohibits people from using their benefits to pay for cruises. Which, really? How many TANF recipients do you know who are spending their paltry benefits on cruises? My guess is none. Besides, what sort of cruise can one even buy for 430 bucks? A ticket in steerage on one of those poop cruises, perhaps, but that’s it.
As Liz Schott of the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities told The Daily Beast, “This is not about a real problem, this is not a public policy decision. This is all about politics and creating a wrong impression that public welfare recipients can’t spend their money wisely.”
The extensive rules detailed in the new law, which is slated to take effect on July 1, are outrageous and infantilizing to poor people, the majority of whom are spending every last dime they have to make ends meets. But the most outrageous provision in the law is one that limits a recipient to a cash withdrawal of $25 per day.
EBT cards work sort of like debit cards, which means recipients can either use their cards at stores that will accept them or they can use them at ATM machines to make cash withdrawals. The $25 daily allowance won’t prohibit recipients from spending as much as their benefits will allow at stores that will accept them.
The daily allowance will, according to Republicans, crack down on people using their EBT cards to make large cash withdrawals that can then be used for prohibited items. By limiting beneficiaries to $25 a day, the law is supposed to prevent people from making large cash withdrawals to spend on lottery tickets, gambling sprees, and poop cruises.
This is devastating for a number of reasons. A lot of poor people don’t have bank accounts, so they rely on cash to pay for items that many Americans pay for using online banking or paper checks. This law makes it virtually impossible for Kansan TANF recipients to use the money in the way it was intended. To use TANF benefits to pay rent, for example, they would either need to open a bank account—which many poor folks can’t afford due to exorbitant overdraft fees or monthly service charges—or go to the ATM machine dozens of times a month in order to withdraw money in $20 increments.
But wait! The daily allowance is $25 a day, not $20, you may be thinking. Sure—and how many ATMs have you ever used that dispense five-dollar bills?
And when you add the 85-cent fee that TANF charges for withdrawals, as Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, pointed out to The Daily Beast, plus another two to three dollars for the ATM transaction fee, the new law whittles away at the already paltry benefit that TANF recipients receive and hands a portion of that benefit to banks.
Two or three dollars may not seem like much, but to someone already living in poverty, it can mean the difference between eating or going to bed hungry. And do you know who doesn’t need that two or three dollars? Banks. Those fees add up, too: Al Jazeera America reports that in California, welfare recipients spent $19 million on bank fees in 2012—which means a $19 million windfall for banks.
What is a person living in a rural town supposed to do, for that matter? How are they supposed to get to the ATM every day?
Apparently, Kansas Republicans don’t know and they don’t care.
Kansas Republicans claim that they are trying to cut down on fraud. But Kansas already has policies in place designed to do so. In 2013, the Kansas Department of Children and Families, the state agency that oversees the TANF program, doubled the number of people working in its fraud investigation unit. This, even as other states with reputations for being tough on fraud, such as California, were reducing or eliminating fraud units because they weren’t cost-effective. In an interview with the Kansas Health Institute, Kaaryn Gustafson, a law professor at University of Connecticut and an expert on the U.S. welfare system, said, “California came to the realization that it was spending $60 million to go after $20 million of fraud, and only recovering a small fraction of that.”
Moreover, in 2014, the Kansas DCF instituted Fraud Navigator, a payment-processing program that can block unapproved transactions at the cash register. It can also block EBT transactions at specific locations, such as casinos, strip clubs, and concert stadiums.
The $25 daily allowance is supposed to further cut down on this sort of fraud. If a Kansas TANF recipient heads to a casino and discovers that he can’t withdraw money from the casino ATM, for instance, that person would now be prevented from going to an ATM at an unrestricted location, making a large cash withdrawal, and heading back to the casino to gamble it all away. In theory.
But truly—how many TANF recipients are using their money that way? According to The Daily Beast, virtually none. The numbers of irresponsible TANF recipients are not so great that it’s worth hamstringing honest people’s ability to use the cash to pay their rent or utilities bill.
Still, this kind of law isn’t built on brand-new ideas. Over the years, Republicans have demonstrated time and time again how much they hate poor people. A recent report by the Heritage Foundation, upon which so many Republicans have relied over the years to formulate their backward views about poverty and the poor, complained that most poor people aren’t living in tenement housing:
The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family was also able to obtain medical care when needed. By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.
Those are sentences that someone actually wrote.
If you’re not living like it’s the 19th century—with six smallpox-ridden people living in one room—then you’re apparently not really poor. And if you have a refrigerator, a car, a cell phone, or an Xbox, as the Heritage Foundation went on to imply, you’re definitely not poor. You’re just a lazy schmuck mooching off the government.
Never mind that in order to find a job in this day and age, most people need a car and a cell phone. And a refrigerator? Poor people aren’t allowed to eat perishable food now? Seriously?
I’ve never been poor, so I won’t pretend to imagine what it’s like. But I’ve talked to people who are poor or who used to be, and they are some of the most fiscally responsible people I know. Certainly more fiscally responsible than I am. Most poor people can find more value in a dollar than the average non-poor person.
Yet Kansas Republicans seem to think that poor folks just need a stern finger-wagging about their spending habits, in the form of increased regulations that do nothing but make it more difficult for them to plan.
This law is a mess. And if Kansas Republicans have any sense whatsoever, they will repeal it immediately.