Every few weeks the nation’s eyes turn to Kansas, and not to gaze in admiration. The focus of the latest unfortunate round of ridicule and criticism has been a bill limiting how the poor can access and spend welfare aid.
When it passed the Senate 30-10 and the House 87-35 last week, the legislation looked like an unsurprising effort to codify and double down on the Brownback administration’s tightfisted approach to distributing federally funded aid for the poor.
It puts a lifetime limit of three years on welfare benefits, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, compared with the current state limit of four years and the federal allowance of five. Its rules also include a $25-a-day limit on ATM withdrawals with a Vision card.
But what has captured the nation’s attention is the bill’s absurdly long and micromanaging list of items that TANF money cannot be used for. Its banned expenditures involve not only booze, cigarettes, casinos and strip clubs but also movie tickets, tattoos, manicures, massages, fortune tellers, swimming pools, cruise ships and theme parks. The badly written and unenforceable bill also singles out jewelry stores and lingerie shops.
“Should the government care where people buy underwear?” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked one of the bill’s champions, Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote that “the gratuitous nature of the law becomes obvious when you consider that it also bans all out-of-state spending of welfare dollars – so the inclusion of a cruise-ship ban is redundant in landlocked Kansas.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Rex W. Huppke wrote: “While the Kansas bill may say ‘fiscal responsibility’ to some, to the poor it says: ‘You are alcoholic, tattooed gambling addicts whose lazy bodies are riddled with piercings typical of cigarette-smoking vagabonds who sleep in movie theaters and ride the high seas. Oh, and you can’t be trusted.’”
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik suggested the goal was to “crush the spirit of the welfare recipient.”
And “we rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid,” observed Washington Post blogger Emily Badger, mentioning beneficiaries of farm subsidies, Pell Grants, Medicare and mortgage interest deductions.
“Kansas, you cray,” declared Larry Wilmore on “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central Tuesday. He noted how the state is “limiting how poor people spend their money” at the same time it is so low on funds that schools are closing early.
Proponents say the bill is about helping needy Kansans rather than punishing them. On MSNBC, O’Donnell cheerfully insisted it is meant “to get more people off of government assistance and into the workforce.”
So far, though, its main effect is to make Kansas look cruel, petty and clueless.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman