In the last week there has been some controversy in Kansas and Missouri with bills that affect welfare recipients. Kansas’ measure would prohibit recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits from spending the money on “swimming pool visits, tattoos, strip clubs, movies, body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics.” Missouri’s bill, on the other hand, focuses specifically on food stamps and prohibits using those funds to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” While I don’t agree with all of the provisions of the laws, I don’t have any objection to government limiting what welfare funds can be spent on.
The point of these types of programs is to help those in need afford basic necessities, and while “basic necessities” is a relative term there is no definition where that would or should include things like alcohol or tobacco products. Explicitly banning things like spas and cruise ships seem odd since someone on welfare wouldn’t have the kind of money to afford those things in the first place, but it isn’t necessarily harming anyone.
In terms of explicit foods in the case of Missouri, the primary concern appears to be health and luxury. Steak is deemed too expensive to be considered responsible spending, and while chips are inexpensive, they are not healthy. While I don’t think food stamps should be spent on lobster, an outright ban does not solve the whole problem. Poor urban areas, where there are a lot of welfare and food stamp recipients, do not have access to good food. These so called “food deserts,” which are home to almost 13.5 million low-income people according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, limits access to the healthy food lawmakers want welfare recipients to be spending their money on. So while recipients should not be buying sugary drinks and salty snacks for their families, it is due more to the lack of access to cheap healthy food rather than a blatant disregard for health.
The common argument against this type of policy is that the government should not be in the business of telling people how to spend their money or that there is a double standard with “welfare for the rich” such as tax breaks and certain subsidies. The issue with these arguments is where the money comes from. Welfare recipients essentially receive taxpayer money. A tax break on the other hand is not giving businesses and individuals government money, but rather allowing them to keep their own money (unless there is an inherent amount of income that is considered property of the government). However, there is a double standard with who should be more scrutiny with anyone who is being given taxpayer money. Take Congressman Aaron Schock, who designed his office similarly to Downton Abbey on the taxpayer’s dime and is currently being investigated for misuse of public funds. If anything, this is much more expensive and more of a luxury than a steak and should, and hopefully will, be punished.
The reality is that there is no right to income and there is no inherent right to welfare. If states want to dictate limitations on what welfare can be spent on, it is well within their legal rights to do so. Are these types of laws originating from a certain disdain of poor people and misconception of welfare recipients rather than truly addressing a rampant problem? Probably. But welfare recipients aren’t exactly digging into filet mignon while taking a spa day to begin with so the overarching effect is much more minimal than some are making it out to be.
Adding qualifications to welfare also isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Starting next year in Australia, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children without medical exemption will not be given welfare. While harsh, it is effective in promoting a public health policy. Kansas and Missouri aren’t necessarily on the same level as this since no money is being taken away and wasteful spending is a much more complicated public policy initiative than high vaccination rates.
If there is any issue with what Kansas and Missouri are doing it is that there needs to be an educational effort on how to live within the new restrictions since simply banning unhealthy foods and luxuries doesn’t necessarily lead to responsible spending especially when options are limited in poorer areas. Otherwise, those on welfare that are not buying luxuries and are able to afford food will largely remain unaffected by the legislation.