Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has just signed a bill from his state legislature banning welfare recipients from spending the public aid they receive through the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program in ways lawmakers deem wasteful or inappropriate.
Now off limits are travel on cruise ships – likely somewhat scarce in landlocked Kansas – as well as adult entertainment, tattoos, alcohol, lingerie, and a long list of other products and services disapproved of by the Kansas state legislature.
Supporters say the move has benefits. First, they say that by drawing bright lines that separate acceptable spending from unacceptable, lawmakers are actually helping welfare recipients make better decisions and nudge them toward transitioning off public assistance sooner. Second, they claim, it will save money by making welfare fraud less attractive to people who want to spend TANF money on these so-called luxuries.
One state lawmaker told the Associated Press that every dollar spent fraudulently is a dollar not going to otherwise eligible families. At least 23 other states have also passed laws restricting how these public benefits can be used, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There are problems with much of this reasoning, however. First, it’s unclear that substantial numbers of welfare recipients are heading to the tattoo parlor, the casino, or the travel agent when their electronic benefits card is reloaded. A federal study of welfare spending found that less than 1 percent of welfare funds are spent at such establishments.
Second, the law is largely unenforceable, since TANF recipients can use the electronic benefits cards to withdraw cash. The law, however, does take some steps to prevent the poor from making big-ticket purchases under the radar by banning cash withdrawals of more than $25 per day.
Interestingly, the bill does not bar TANF recipients from buying guns and ammunition with their welfare checks. The spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Children and Families said that TANF checks are meant to be spent on necessities – and defended the exemption for weapons on the grounds that if they are needed to protect a family in a “dangerous neighborhood” or to hunt for food, they could be considered a necessity.
Here’s a partial list of what is now off limits for TANF spending in Kansas:
- Jewelry stores
- Massage parlors
- Body piercing parlors
- Lingerie shops
- Vapor cigarette stores
- Fortune-telling businesses
- Video arcades
- Swimming pools
- Cruise ships
- Theme parks
- Strip clubs
- Concert tickets
- Lottery tickets
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