In his failed 1976 Presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of the “welfare queen”—a conservative stereotype of a person fraudulently using public assistance to lead a luxurious lifestyle, driving a Cadillac to the public assistance office to bilk the taxpayers for another ill-gotten welfare check.
The case Reagan loved to reference on the campaign trail was real: In the 1970s, a Chicago con artist presumably named Linda Taylor used dozens of aliases to defraud the public of at least $150,000 in public assistance. It was an isolated incident, but it allowed Reagan to sell the country on a narrative with racist undertones: that public assistance was being exploited by lazy people living the high life at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.
The narrative isn’t true. In reality, people on public assistance lead very frugal lifestyles. But the trope persists, and legislators in Kansas have used it as a pretext to pass some of the most insulting legislation we’ve seen this year: a law that puts bizarre restrictions on how beneficiaries of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) are allowed to spend the money they get.
Kansas issues its TANF benefits on debit cards instead of checks, and the new law signed by Governor Sam Brownback (R) disallows certain types of vendors from accepting payment from TANF debit cards. Traditional purveyors of vice such as tattoo parlors, liquor stores, and strip clubs all make the list (which is already required by federal regulations), but so do some more unexpected vendors. Under the law, TANF recipients are barred from spending benefits at movie theaters, swimming pools, and even cruise ships. (Yes, cruise ships. In Kansas). In addition, the law limits ATM withdrawals on TANF debit cards to $25 a day—which is not only a massive inconvenience, but also significantly increases the bank fees that TANF recipients will have to pay in a month.
We're talking about $497 a month.
As it is, the maximum benefit in Kansas under TANF is fairly meager. According to the Washington Post, Kansans on the program can receive at most $497 a month in the priciest counties in the state. Families who are poor enough to be relying on that extra monthly income to pay the bills aren’t the likeliest candidates to be spending money on tattoos and French manicures, much less booking a spot on Royal Caribbean. The Kansas law, however, isn’t just about tackling the imaginary problem of nonexistent welfare queens spending public assistance on a steak dinner at a casino -- it’s about punishing people for the crime of being poor.
Imagine being a person on public assistance in Kansas and scrimping even more on an already-tight food budget so you can afford the rare luxury of taking your kid to a movie or a public pool or even a theme park. In effect, the state of Kansas is about to say: As long as you’re poor, we’re going to prevent you and your children from having any fun.
In the conservative mindset that produced this law, poverty is not the result of circumstance or a lack of striving; instead, it’s the result of shiftlessness, laziness, and a lack of motivation. From this point of view, people choose to be poor because being poor isn’t a hard enough lifestyle. So, if the government makes it even harder to be poor, most poor people will buck up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and magically find good-paying work and stop being poor. It’s a privileged position that’s insulting to anyone who has ever struggled to make ends meet while looking for work, but it’s the basis behind a surprising amount of conservative legislation.
Kansas isn’t the only state contemplating laws of this kind, but its version is the most extreme. Missouri Republicans are considering a bill that would ban purchasing steak and seafood with welfare benefits. They insist, without any actual data, that people on welfare in the state are buying steak and lobster under the guise of nutrition assistance. And earlier this year, New Hampshire’s legislature was contemplating restrictions similar to the Kansas law. Why? As one of the legislators pushing the reform said, “I can’t tell you how many times my constituents stand in line and watch someone pull out an EBT card to buy lobster or something like that.”
Is there any evidence beyond random anecdotes to suggest that poor people engage in this type of profligacy with any regularity? Absolutely not. In fact, poor people tend to be much more cost-conscious because they have no choice but to be. Meanwhile, we don’t drug-test wealthy people to make sure they’re not abusing the government benefits they receive, like tax deductions on mortgage interest or IRA contributions. But random anecdotes about poor people buying lobster with government benefits taps into a deeply held conservative belief about the nature of poverty and the character of those who experience it.
The end result of this obsession? Laws that will accomplish little besides inflicting even more misery, inconvenience, and expense on the people who can least afford it and do nothing to help lift people out of poverty.