In which Kansas reveals our Id
This week the state of Kansas passed legislation designed to restrict certain types of spending using public assistance dollars. In doing so, they inadvertently revealed our collective Id and what we think of the poor as well as women, and they as demonstrated the inherent difficulties in our constant desire to micromanaging the poor.
First off, I should probably note that the idea behind Kansas’s HB 2258 — that the use of public assistance dollars should be restricted in their use — is one that I actually do support. If a state is offering dollars to assist with basic necessities, I believe, it should also be allowed to have reasonable expectations that those dollars go to pay for basic necessities. Ideally I would like to see such restrictions coupled with work training programs, state-funded education, and other measures designed to help pull people up out of poverty as opposed to helping them keep their head just above water. But even then I would rather have the state directly pay providers for such services rather than hand over cash to hundreds of thousands of people and hope they did with the money what we’d collectively intended.
The rub, then, comes with listing exactly what is and what isn’t acceptable for poor people to spend money on when they need assistance making ends meet. It’s probably a fool’s errand to attempt to do so, which I’m guessing is why few legislatures even try. And as Kansas has so aptly demonstrated, doing so probably tells us more about our own collective Id than it does anything about those in poverty.
Here is the complete list of verboten goods and services that the public-assistance recipients are now forbidden to spend public dollars on in Kansas:
No TANF cash assistance shall be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting event tickets or tickets for other entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. No TANF cash assistance shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond com- pany, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented enter- tainment 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. TANF cash assistance transactions for cash withdrawals from automated teller machines shall be limited to $25, per transaction and to one transaction per day. No TANF cash assistance shall be used for purchases at points of sale outside the state of Kansas.
It’s quite a lengthy list (although certainly not as lengthy as one might expect for such a venture), and so it helps if we consolidate and organize the individual restrictions:
Restrictions based on Financial Management Issues
Cash withdrawals over $25, spending outside of Kansas
Restrictions on Vices or Criminally Related Activities
Alcohol, cigarettes/tobacco/vapor cigarettes, drug paraphernalia, gambling, sexually oriented goods and services, bail bonds
Restrictions on Entertainment Spending
Tickets for sporting events, movies theaters, or any other public entertainment venue that requires admission. (e.g.: zoos, museums, fairs, plays, etc.), swimming pools
Restrictions on Personal-Appearance Spending
Tattoo parlor, jewelry store, nail salon, lingerie, piercings
Restrictions on WTF? Spending
Psychics, fortunetellers, cruise ships
The first two categories are likely no-brainers. If you’re going to attempt to ensure public assistance funds are spent on the types of things taxpayers intended, not allowing recipients to withdraw large amounts of cash makes sense. Kansas wanting tax-payer-funded dollars to be spent on Kansas businesses is also pretty understandable.
There is also a strong public-benefit argument to be made for restrictions on goods and services that are considered vices and/or related to criminal activities. Most social workers I know will attest that drugs and alcohol can be a barrier to breaking out of poverty; it makes sense, therefore, that we not use public dollars to fund those vices. Tobacco products are a known public health risk and an inordinate drain on low-income budgets, and so restrictions on those, too, seems prudent — especially if Kansas local governments and/or non-profits provide some type of free or low-cost programs for addiction. Vapor cigarettes are a little trickier since they are commonly used as drug paraphernalia and a step in quitting tobacco addition; still, it’s hard to find fault with the restriction.
Restrictions on spending on sex workers and sexual paraphernalia also seems wise. I have no doubt that I’m farther along on the sexual libertine spectrum than most in the Kansas legislature (or at least their public personas), and as such I don’t necessarily see sex as sinful in the way that I know others often do. Whatever happens between consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedroom, couch, floor, kitchen counter, dining room table, elevator, S&M dungeon, or Delta Airline laboratory is their own business as far as I’m concerned. But asking taxpayers to fund such activities seems to go against the spirit of public assistance, as does paying for bail bonds.
After that, though, the restrictions begin to get a bit hinky.
Take for example the restrictions on entertainment, which are especially telling. Recipients are allowed to spend their dollars on any non-vice entertainment they desire — so long as they don’t do it in public. You can use your public assistance to rent a movie, get a game console, or buy a television on which to watch sporting events. Really, if you’re poor it appears we’re OK with you entertaining yourself in an almost infinite variety of ways providing we don’t have to look at you. The entertainment restrictions aren’t designed to curb unnecessary spending of public dollars, they’re designed to ensure those of us in the middle and upper classes can continue to pretend poor people don’t exist.
The restrictions on personal-appearance spending are even more troubling. Aside from the restrictions on tattoos, you might notice a common thread in all of the things that are being made verboten: they are all products and services we associate with women. Just as we find insurance paying for women’s sexual health issues controversial in a way we don’t when it pays for men’s sexual health issues, the thought of poor women using public dollars to become visually appealing is apparently so much of a scandal that it must be stopped — while men are apparently feel free to use public funds to buy almost anything we associate with male desirability. An impoverished woman saving for, say, a corset for her wedding or anniversary deserves our public scorn. But a man wanting to buy thong underwear for a night out on the town trying to pick up hot babes? Judge not lest you something something, I guess.
The final category is probably the worst, in as much as it seems to be little more than a taken opportunity to kick the impoverished while they’re down. Using public assistance to pay for luxury cruises does indeed seem like a bad idea, but as Eleanor Clift reported last week it’s a thing that’s never happened. Throwing that in the mix seems to be little more than a collective FU to those who are struggling financially at best, and an attempt to create a mythology that allows us to feel good about keeping them down at worst. Likewise, there’s no real data that supports concerns that the poor are using public assistance on fortunetellers and tarot card readers. Those restrictions, too, appears to be more of an attempt to twist the knife and strip away human dignity than it does an attempt to solve an actual problem.
As I noted above, Kansas’s new law doesn’t really say that much about poverty or those American who suffer in its grasp — but it sure says a hell of a lot about the rest of us.
[Picture via Wikipedia]