No movies, concerts, or tattoos: Kansas bill would limit use of welfare funds

Kansas lawmakers have approved a bill that would prohibit families on welfare from using state funds for everything from movies to bail.

John Hanna/AP Photo/File
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback answers questions from reporters about pension issues during a news conference, Thursday, April 2, 2015, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The governor is expected to sign a bill that tightens restrictions on how families on welfare can use the funds available to them.

Movies. Tattoo parlors. Theme parks.

These are just some of the things that Kansas families on welfare will no longer be able to spend state dollars on, if Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signs House Bill 2258 into law this week.

The bill would make Kansas the latest state to impose its own conditions on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits, as state governments tighten public assistance programs in a bid to encourage employment.

The Kansas bill would also set the stage for a much broader range of restrictions on TANF funds which, as part of the Kansas Successful Families Program, are designed to help low-income residents who might be between jobs or are caring for a child or relative.

TANF funds vary from state to state, but Kansas provides up to $497 a month for a family of four in a high-cost area. In general, TANF electronic benefit transfer or EBT cards can be used at retail establishments that accept debit cards and can be used to withdraw cash. In 2012, the federal government restricted EBT card use for liquor, gambling, and adult entertainment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At least 23 states have since passed laws extending EBT card prohibitions to things like tobacco, guns, and lottery tickets.

The new Kansas bill goes further. It bans the use of government cash benefits for concert tickets, sporting event tickets, jewelry, massages, body piercings and tattoos, nail salons, spas, fortune tellers, theme parks, swimming pools, cruise ships, video arcades, and bail, among other things.

The bill also limits ATM cash withdrawals to $25 a day.

“We're trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended,” Sen. Michael O’Donnell (R) of Wichita, who advocated for the bill, told the Topeka Capital-Journal. He added that the bill was devised to compel those receiving public assistance to spend the funds “more responsibly.”

“This is about prosperity,” Senator O’Donnell said. “This is about having a great life.”

Critics of the bill have said that the restrictions place unwarranted controls on low-income residents’ spending.

“I just think we are simply saying to people, 'If you are asking for assistance in this state, you're sort of less than other people and we're going to tell you how and where to spend your money,” Rep. Carolyn Bridges (D) of Wichita said during the House debate over the bill, according to The Associated Press.

Kansas isn’t alone in reviving the welfare discussion, nor is it the only state where the issue divides lawmakers along party lines.

On Monday, Maine Gov. Paul LePage announced “a familiar proposal” for state welfare reform that includes new restrictions on EBT cards as well as additional job-search requirements for welfare applicants, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The proposal follows through on the governor’s 2014 campaign promise – he vowed to help speed up the transition from “welfare to work” and improve accountability in the welfare system, Reuters reported.

"We are looking to find common ground with the governor on welfare reform," Maine Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves told the wire service. "As we know, the best anti-poverty program is a job."

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