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Shaming the poor: Legislative proposals limit assistance



If signed this week by Gov. Sam Brownback, the Kansas House Bill 2258 will restrict recipients of the federal aid program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), from using that money to go to the movies, spa, nail salon, swimming pool, or the casino. 

TANF supplies cash assistance under Kansas’ Successful Family Program, which provides employment and support services to low-income families. There are currently 7,553 families and 18,291 individual recipients who use the program. 

TANF provides cash benefits to families based on the family’s income and the county where they live. A family of four can receive up $459 a month in a high cost rural county and $497 in a high cost high population county. 

Under the bill, families will also not be able to spend TANF money on alcohol, cigarettes, concert tickets, cruise ships, theme parks, jewelry stores, tattoos or body piercing parlors, or arcades. 

Not only will the legislation restrict where TANF recipients can use their funds, it will also limit how much they can withdraw from an ATM per day. Recipients will only be able to take out up to $25 per day.The restriction would ensure that recipients would have to make withdrawals on multiple days to get enough money to pay for rent and other large bills. With every ATM withdrawal costing a $1 fee, this bill impedes on their way of life and makes it difficult to survive. That’s $30 a month and a family of four in a rural county will only receive a TANF check of $454 per month. 

The bill would further limit the number of months a family could receive benefits over their lives to 36 months. Previously, families could receive TANF benefits for 48 months in a lifetime.

The one thing people are allowed to buy: guns. Lawmakers are saying that even if recipients are not responsible enough to use their TANF money on rent and food, they are trustworthy enough to use guns. 

Congress members like State Sen. Michael O’Donnell have advocated for the bill because they believe this will allow families to “spend more responsibly.” 

“We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” O’Donnell said. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”

It’s concerning that O’Donnell believes stigmatizing low-income people and restricting them from visiting locations will allow them to “have a great life.” This statement is especially appalling when the data shows that families receiving government assistance are actually less likely to spend their money on luxuries like dining out and going to the movies. 

However, there is overwhelming support for the bill in the state government, as the Kansas House and Senate passed the bill last week. There is a Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. Brownback is expected to pass it, even though he “plans to review the measure carefully.” If signed, the law will go into effect July 1. 

Kansas isn’t the only state that wants to punish the poor. Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin recently introduced House Bill 813, which would prevent recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from using benefits to purchase “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” 

As it now stands, recipients can use benefits to buy food or food products excluding “alcoholic beverages and tobacco, hot foods, or foods prepared for immediate consumption.”

Unlike the bill in Kansas, Missouri’s bill at least tries to present itself as rational with the goal of improving the dietary habits of poor families. However, much of Missouri is a food desert: mostly impoverished areas that lack fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods due to the dearth of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. These restrictions mean that people will be less likely to turn to healthier options as a result because of their lack of access. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that such restrictions would not make families healthier unless they also include an educational component to teach families the how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, there is nothing educational about Brattin’s bill. Lawmakers won’t spend that kind of money on the poor.  

If you think it’s only the poor who “mooch” off the government, think again. The rich get constant government handouts, including a mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes. From this tax break, households that make more than $200,000 a year receive more homeownership expenditures than households making less than $20,000. It also applies to second homes. There’s also a yacht tax deduction: if people pay interest on a boat, there is a yacht tax deduction. Talking business over a meal is also tax deductible. The ways in which the rich get help from the government is endless. 

So why are rich people incentivized to buy a second home when poor people are barred against and shamed for going to the movies with their welfare money? The answer: the poor are stigmatized. People would rather punish the poor than try to combat the rising income gap. The US has not been a fan of welfare since the days of FDR and the New Deal. With the rise of Reaganism, so did people’s hate for welfare and the stereotypes of welfare queen and the “strapping young buck” (derogatory slang for a black man). 

The media portrays welfare recipients as lazy, inconsiderate, and black. Poverty is racialized. There is a misconception that most people who receive welfare are people of color, due to the stereotype that blacks are inherently lazy. However, of the 11.4 million Americans who are currently on welfare, there are an equal amount of recipients who are black (39.8%) as those who are white (38.8%). 

The shaming of poor people is also due to the ingrained belief that people are lazy because of a lack of motivation, and that they need to just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” 

According to Kansas spokeswoman Eileen Hawley, “The governor believes strongly that employment is the most effective path out of poverty and he is supportive of work requirements that help people become self-sufficient.” 

Being self-sufficient requires that people do not and should not receive help from the government. Yet Brownback believes it’s okay for the rich to receive money from the government, because they’ll use it on yachts instead of going to the movies or the pool. In Kansas, it’s also acceptable for farmers to get lots of money from the government without facing limitations on where they can spend their money. Over the past twenty years, Kansas received $16 billion in federal farm subsidies. The fact that Gov. Brownback can’t see how people rely on the government is a sign of his privilege.

Hawley’s statement also implies that recipients of welfare don’t use their money carefully. However, the data would beg to differ. 

Families that “receive public benefits such as housing assistance, welfare cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security Income for the disabled or low-income elderly” have smaller budgets to spend than those who don’t receive benefits. Recipients of these public programs spend more of their money (77 percent) on necessities like food, rent, and transportation, according to an analysis by the bureau of Labor Statistics. These people are actually less likely to spend their money on luxuries like dining out and going to the movies. 

There may be benefits for the poor, but there is no possible benefit to restricting families from such simple sources of happiness. We need to stop blaming the oppressed and start questioning and challenging the oppressors. 

We are amending this article as Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed House Bill 2258 into law on Thursday. The law will go into effect July 1. 

After signing the bill, Brownback said, "It's about the dignity of the work and helping families move from the reliance on a government pittance to become self-sufficient by developing the skills to find a well-paying job and build a career."

Brownback has made his decision and dehumanized the poor in the process. 



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