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Kansas bans welfare recipients from seeing movies, going swimming on government’s dime

(Tobias Schwarz/Reuters file)

There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas law aims to keep it that way.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed House Bill 2258 into law Thursday. The measure means Kansas families receiving government assistance will no longer be able to use those funds to visit swimming pools, see movies, go gambling or get tattoos on the state’s dime.

Those are just a few of the restrictions contained within the law that aims to tighten regulations on how poor families spend their government aid. It will go into effect July 1.

The measure — called the HOPE Act by supporters — “provides an opportunity for success,” Brownback said in a statement after signing the bill. “It’s about the dignity of work and helping families move from reliance on a government pittance to becoming self-sufficient by developing the skills to find a well-paying job and build a career.”

State Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican who has advocated for the bill, said the legislation was designed to pressure those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to spend “more responsibly.”

[Missouri Republicans are trying to ban food stamp recipients from buying steak and seafood]

“We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” O’Donnell, vice chair of the state senate’s standing committee on public health and welfare, told the Topeka Capital-Journal earlier this year. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”

That, according to the legislation, means limiting spending on body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics. The measure — which limits TANF recipients from withdrawing more than $25 per day from ATMs — also forbids recipients from spending money at a:

…theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.

“I just think we are simply saying to people, ‘If you are asking for assistance in this state, you’re sort of less than other people and we’re going to tell you how and where to spend your money,'” state Rep. Carolyn Bridges, a Wichita Democrat, said during a House debate, according to the Associated Press.

[What Kansas gets wrong when it tries to control what poor people can do with welfare]

The Kansas House and Senate passed the bill April 2 with wide support from Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, according to the AP.

Since then, the measure has drawn national attention. Jon Stewart contrasted the bill with another Kansas bill Brownback signed that relaxes some restrictions on gun owners. “You’re poor, but you’re still an American,” Stewart said.

Under the new welfare law, TANF recipients can still spend their benefit money on guns, the Wichita Eagle reported.

“The list has attracted attention because it feels mean-spirited,” Shannon Cotsoradis, head of advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, told AP. “It really seems to make a statement about how we feel about the poor.”

The United Way of Greater Topeka had also come out against the measure, calling it “an extremely harmful piece of legislation that makes it more difficult for low-income families to achieve self-sufficiency.”

The United Way chapter’s chief executive, Miriam Krehbiel, told KCUR that while stories of money-mismanagement by TANF recipients helped drummed up support, there is some missing context. “People on public assistance shouldn’t be spending what little money they have on things like cruises,” Krehbiel said. “But what I don’t get is how we think that someone on public assistance – as little as it is – would ever be able to save up enough money to be on a cruise ship?”

Brownback had been expected to sign the bill.

“We know that the most charitable act is not handing someone a check but helping that person get a job that sustains them and their families for generations to come,” he said Thursday. “Our focus is on helping people develop the skills to find and keep a job. Instead of focusing on a war against poverty, we will focus on fighting for the poor among us by offering them hope and opportunity.”

Under the Successful Families Program, an eligible family of four can receive as much as $497 per month in certain high-cost counties, but no more than $454 in lower-cost locales. The law now caps the number of months a family could receive those benefits over a lifetime at 36 months.

The new law comes at a time when TANF enrollment is on the decline.

During Brownback’s first term in office, TANF recipients dropped from 38,900 in 2011 to 17,600 in 2014, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. About 300,000 Kansans received food stamps, an increase of about 5,000 since Brownback became governor, the newspaper noted.

Republicans have hailed the declining TANF numbers as evidence that anti-poverty strategies are working, the Web site reports, but Democrats have argued the numbers are evidence of more families slipping between the cracks.

“We pat ourselves on the back that our TANF rolls have gone down exponentially, and we say it’s because all those people are now working,” Sen. Laura Kelly (D) told the Capital-Journal. “We don’t know that, and I’m guessing it’s not the truth.”

“Now what we want to do is take the same mean-spirited policies that we’ve implemented over the years and we want to codify them,” she added. “I can only assume that the motive behind this is truly malice of intent.”

[This post, originally published April 6, has been updated.]


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