Limit welfare to paying for basic needs

Gov. Sam Brownback, left, shakes hands with Department for Children and Families secretary Phyllis Gilmore, right, after signing a welfare reform bill into law in Topeka, Kan., Thursday, April 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Growing up, I saw firsthand how my mother did her best to carefully stretch welfare checks to cover the basics: housing, food, clothing and transportation. As a single teenage mom in my early years, she needed that government assistance, but she was always adamant about being thrifty — trust me when I tell you how familiar I am with eating ramen noodles for dinner.

She taught me that every penny counts and that paying my own way is the American way. Which is why states such should go ahead with laws that restrict how recipients of government assistance spend that money. Kansas’ measure, which Gov. Sam Brownback signed last week, will 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.

A similar proposal in Missouri would ban beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from using those funds to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” Sure, “seafood” could mean anything from canned tuna to oysters Rockefeller, but you get the idea. If taxpayers’ hard-earned money pays for those in need to receive TANF or SNAP benefits, then it’s reasonable for their elected representatives to restrict what those benefits are used to buy.

Anyone could find themselves needing help to meet their basic needs — your company downsizes, the family’s sole breadwinner dies unexpectedly, or you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness and unable to work. These things happen to people from all walks of life. In those cases, benefits can help bridge the gap, like they did for my mom and me. But it’s not fair for people receiving benefits to pay for tattoos or jewelry — if you’ve got enough money to spend on those items, then you should be able to cover your basic living expenses.

This logic shouldn’t apply just to recipients of SNAP and TANF. The Washington Post’s Emily Badger makes a good point that we often employ a double standard and “rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid.” But maybe we should. My hope is that the Kansas and Missouri bills are the start of demanding more accountability across the board for the way taxpayer money is spent. If you and I have to account for our expenses and make determinations about what’s important from month to month, then those who are experiencing hardships shouldn’t get to enjoy luxuries at the expense of those who pay their own way every day.

Not that every provision of these laws makes sense. The Kansas law will limit recipients to withdrawing no more than $25 a day from an ATM, but that might create an unnecessary roadblock for people who pay major bills (such as rent) in cash. And Kansas should probably strike swimming pools from the banned list. Yes, swimming is recreational, but it’s also an important safety skill and good exercise — something that shouldn’t be restricted to those who can afford to pay for a pass at the local community center.

People on government assistance do still need recreation. But there are plenty of inexpensive entertainment options for families. And if this problem of wasteful spending applies only to a small number of SNAP and TANF recipients, as critics claim, then these laws shouldn’t be much of an intrusion.

There’s nothing wrong with placing limitations on how those in need spend the government assistance they receive. And since one of the stated goals of the TANF program is making sure that “children can be cared for,” we have to ask if the use of government EBT cards at some sort of entertainment facility, like a casino or day spa, is really in the interest of a child. Most of the things prohibited by the Kansas bill don’t promote the health and welfare of children.

As a kid, I didn’t go to the nail shop or eat filet mignon, even though I knew people on food stamps who did. I learned from my mother that the finer things in life would come through hard work and completing my education.

The bottom line is that nail salons and amusement parks aren’t necessities — and if you’re coming to taxpayers for help, then taxpayers are well within their rights to make sure you don’t spend their money frivolously.

Chelsi Henry is an attorney and environmental-policy adviser who was named a Republican National Committee “Rising Star” in 2014. This column was first published in The Washington Post.