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Why is Kansas pursuing tougher welfare rules? (+video)

Starting in July, welfare recipients in Kansas won't be able to use government aid to go to a movie theater or swimming pool, among other spots, assuming the governor signs the measure.

Starting in July, welfare recipients in Kansas won't be able to use government aid to go to a tattoo parlor, nail salon, movie theater, or swimming pool, among other spots, assuming Gov. Sam Brownback signs the measure passed by the state legislature.

The maximum they can withdraw from an ATM will also be limited, to $25 a day. They won't be able to spend their benefits out of state, and the maximum amount of time they can receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) over the course of a lifetime will be reduced from 48 to 36 months.

States have great discretion with regard to the rules they can put in place for TANF block grants, and a number of states have sought to limit in various ways how recipients can use those funds. But the bill in Kansas, as well as measures being debated in Missouri that would severely curb eligibility and impose restrictions on how recipients can use their aid, appear to take the constraints to a new level. They also don't seem to be driven primarily by fiscal reasons, but rather by ideological ones, observers say.

"This year is harsher," says Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. "There's more going into eligibility [restrictions] at a time when it isn’t as fiscally driven as it was in the past."

Governor Brownback, a Republican, has touted the fact that during his first term in office, the number of people receiving TANF assistance in the state decreased sharply. Since mid-2011, it's fallen some 60 percent, to a monthly average of about 15,500.

Republican advocates of the current bill say that the measures it would enact are to help ensure that welfare recipients spend money responsibly, and to encourage them to look for work.

“We’re trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” state Sen. Michael O’Donnell told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.”

But others note that the reduction of the welfare rolls has come at the same time as the number of children living in poverty in Kansas has grown consistently.

"This will further exacerbate this," says Shannon Cotsoradis, president of Kansas Action for Children. "Those kids aren't getting their basic needs met." 

The biggest headline-grabber from the Kansas bill has been the unusual list of things that TANF cash recipients can't spend their money on – cruise ships, in particular. As numerous commentators have noted, families living so far below the poverty line that they are eligible for TANF – a family of three in a high-cost county can receive a maximum monthly benefit of $429 – aren't typically buying cruise-ship vacations. They're also barred from spending the money on body piercings, arcades, casinos, liquor, or visits to psychics, among other things.

Restricting what TANF funds can be spent on isn't all that unusual: Federal law says that recipients can't use their debit cards at casinos or liquor stores or for adult entertainment, Ms. Schott notes. But some say having so many requirements not only is hard to enforce, but also promotes stereotypes that poor people are irresponsible with money and seeks to penalize families for innocent entertainment, such as visiting a local pool on a hot summer day.

"It’s about penalizing families for being poor," Ms. Cotsoradis says. "Most [TANF recipients] are hardworking, they're not spending TANF funds on tattoos. It really mischaracterizes all beneficiaries of TANF."

Others say such restrictions, while not unheard of, smack of paternalism and don't really serve a purpose.

"I don’t think we should pass laws that control the behavior of people just because they’re on welfare, unless it has been shown that it's a general problem," says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. States are well within their rights to do so, he notes, and quite a number have further limited lifetime benefits or imposed greater eligibility restrictions around things like drug tests. But the long list of limitations on spending is an erosion of people's autonomy, he says.

"It’s as if people who support these provisions think that because taxpayers give welfare benefits to people they therefore have the right to control many specific aspects of their lives and especially how they spend money," Mr. Haskins says. "We want people to learn to live responsibly, and if we have micro control on their lives, that's not going to help."

The most unusual provision of the Kansas measure – along with its restriction on out-of-state spending – is its $25-a-day limit on how much someone can withdraw from an ATM with his or her TANF debit card, a limit that was added to the bill as a floor amendment.

Critics note that many TANF recipients – who are generally mothers of young children living well below the federal poverty line – will have to spend more money on fees for each of those transactions and will have to go to an ATM multiple days to get out the money needed for things like rent and utilities.

"This will not help people manage their money; it will make it more difficult," says Schott, who says she hasn't seen such a harsh limit imposed in any other state. "It all really makes it much harder and more expensive for these families to try to provide a home for their children, let alone put time and energy to getting work."

Advocates of the measure say the limit is about ensuring that benefits are spent on essentials, and is designed to discourage converting the benefits to cash.

"This is serious, good policy for the state of Kansas," state Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R) told the Associated Press. "There's nothing better to get these people back on their feet than getting them a job and getting them back to work."

Cotsoradis, of Kansas Action for Children, is most concerned about the reduction in lifetime benefits to 36 months. While the typical family spends between 18 and 24 months on assistance, she notes, the ones who spend longer are the families who are most desperate – and the lifetime limit means that if a family climbs out of assistance, then experiences a setback, they might not be eligible again. 

"That 36-month lifetime limit will be very significant," Cotsoradis says. "It's hard to climb out of poverty."

Most states have a 60-month lifetime limit for TANF eligibility, as Kansas did prior to 2011. About a third have a shorter limit, and a number have reduced it in the past few years in the wake of the recession, says Schott. Most notably, Arizona has continued to shorten its limit every year and now has a lifetime limit of 12 months.

 Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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