With New Law, Life Just Got 'A Lot Harder' for Poor in Kansas

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With New Law, Life Just Got 'A Lot Harder' for Poor in Kansas

New policies which set strict limits on benefits create 'aura of abuse,' says economic expert

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, pictured, signed a controversial welfare bill into law Thursday that places strict limits on benefits. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback on Thursday signed a controversial welfare bill into law that places strict limits on welfare benefits, how long recipients may get them, and how they are—and are not—allowed to spend them.

Brownback, a Republican, said during the signing that placing limits on the benefits, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), would encourage recipients to become more self-reliant, but critics of the law maintain that it is punitive and degrading.

The law enshrines policies that set a 36-month lifetime limit on benefits; require able-bodied adults to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or go through a training program in order to qualify for the benefits; and prohibit recipients from spending TANF money at movie theaters, swimming pools, spas, massage parlors, and cruise ships.

Kansas' list of "don'ts" for welfare recipients has attracted criticism "because it feels mean-spirited," Kansas Action for Children president Shannon Cotsoradis told the Associated Press on Thursday. "It really seems to make a statement about how we feel about the poor."

"By signing this bill into law, Gov. Brownback has added to the burden that the poorest Kansans already carry. … It’s always been hard to be poor in Kansas. Now, it’s going to be a lot harder," Cotsoradis told the Kansas City Star.

State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley added, "Child poverty and homelessness in Kansas are at record levels … And, now, the governor has signed a punitive and highly judgmental piece of legislation that imposes illogical reforms that make it harder for Kansans in need to break the cycle and climb out of poverty."

"This is just one more example of how Sam Brownback is out of touch with the real world and has our state on the wrong path," Hensley continued.

If a recipient is found to be committing welfare fraud, the law will also ban that person and any other adults in their household from receiving TANF for life—a provision which critics say endangers recipients who are unaware that their partners or family members are committing fraud. Anyone convicted of two drug felonies will also lose their benefits for life.

The law will also limit ATM withdrawals of cash assistance to $25 a day, with a $1 fee per transaction.

"When the law goes into effect, the biggest problem for poorer Kansas families won't be where they're not allowed to spend their money, but how much of the money they've been granted never winds up being theirs," writes Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight of the ATM fee.

And as Emily Badger writes for the Washington Post, the logic behind stiff welfare requirements is "problematic in at least three, really big ways."

"The first is economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way," Badger explains. "By definition, a much higher share of their income—often more than half of it—is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway."

"The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid," Badger continues. "That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits—farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks—don't recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too."

Elizabeth Schott, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the AP that enacting the policies creates "an aura of abuse."

Badger concludes: "[R]esearch has shown that a remarkable number of people who don't think they get anything from government in fact benefit from one of these programs.... one result of this reality is that we have even less tolerance for programs that help the poor: We begrudge them their housing vouchers, for instance, even though government spends about four times as much subsidizing housing for upper-income homeowners."

The new law is "simply a reflection of a basic double-standard."

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