White Whale

04.07.15 9:15 AM ET

New GOP Lie: Food Stamps on Cruise Ships

Kansas Gov. Brownback is poised to sign a bill that would, among other things, bar people on food stamps from using them on cruise ships—a fake problem.

The headlines are sensational:

Kansas bans welfare recipients for spending food stamps on cruise ships.

Kansas will make sure welfare queens can’t get their palms read on the Caribbean.

The new law awaiting Governor Sam Brownback’s signature also prohibits a long list of activities including shopping at jewelry stores, lingerie shops, video arcades, theme parks and even swimming pools.

Republican lawmakers in the Sunflower State want to make sure none of this waste would happen again.

If it even happened.

(It hasn’t.)

Think of it as the 21st century’s answer to Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, who existed mainly in the minds of conservative critics.

Nobody has offered a current and/or concrete example of a person receiving TANF funds (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) using their EBT card (Electronic Benefits Transaction) aboard a cruise ship, but that hasn’t stopped the Kansas legislature from passing a law to prevent it.

A provision included in their restrictive legislation will prevent TANF recipients from withdrawing any more than $25 a day from an ATM machine.

Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, says since most ATM machines don’t deal in $5 increments, the $25 is effectively $20, plus an 85 cents fee that TANF attaches, plus another couple dollars for the ATM fee, and the result is, “We’ve just made it harder to be poor, as if it weren’t hard enough,” she says.

The list of prohibited items reads like something out of the Legion of Decency, a now defunct Catholic organization that rated films according to their moral content.

And while no one is arguing these racier activities—like patronizing adult entertainment or casino gambling—should be permissible with government funds, banning them is more about stigmatizing the poor than creating any real hardship. The real problem is the $25 limit.

“This is not about a real problem, this is not a public policy decision,” says Liz Schott, of the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities. “This is all about politics and creating a wrong impression that public welfare recipients can’t spend their money wisely.”

The Kansas bill passed the House last week by voice vote and the Senate 30 to 10. Among the 10 opponents were the chamber’s eight Democrats plus two moderate Republicans.

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Minority Leader Anthony Hensley told The Daily Beast the bill is “very mean-spirited, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, Holy Week, leading into Easter. This is not something Jesus would have approved of in my opinion.”

Kansas is not alone in modifying its TANF program, and under the welfare reform law signed by President Clinton in 1996, states have the legal right to make adjustments.

States like Kansas with a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled legislature are in the forefront of the crackdown. In Missouri, a Republican state legislator has introduced legislation that would ban “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

What’s behind this wave of legislation, says Brookings scholar William Galston, is a familiar grievance felt by the middle class and the working class that programs of assistance are “either not going to the right people, or they’re not spending the money in a responsible way.”

These are voters who think the Democratic Party caters to the poor, and that politicians are buying their votes with programs like TANF (overlooking fact that the poor mostly don’t vote).

The misimpressions are on all sides, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. Cotsoradis, with Kansas Action for Children, calls the cruise ship ban “my personal favorite” because it is so ludicrous when you consider a family of three in a high-paying, more urban county in Kansas receives $429 a month; a rural family gets $386 a month.

The way TANF works, recipients take their dollars out of an ATM, and with the $25 limit, “a cruise ship is probably out of the question,” she says.

They can use their card like a debit card in a supermarket, but there’s no way to track where they spend the dollars they withdraw from an ATM. “So we have legislated something that by and large we can’t enforce,” says Cotsoradis.

Some of the provisions are just mean, says Schott, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“It’s not even clear you can take your child on a hot day to a municipal pool,” Schott says.

How infractions like that are policed would be prone to arbitrary enforcement. Would somebody report their neighbor?

“There could be a lot of biases,” says Schott. What’s clear is the gulf between the law and the people whose behavior it is meant to regulate. “I don’t think it’s coming from a lot of fact,” says Schott.

Many if not most TANF recipients are “unbanked,” and without a checking account, how will they take out enough money to pay their rent?

“This is not based on any understanding of the daily reality of making ends meet on these inadequate benefits,” she says.

The only evidence anybody can cite of a remotely recent abuse is a widely broadcast Fox News interview two years ago when a brash young food stamp recipient boasted about buying lobster and sushi with his government assistance.

But apparently that was enough to resurrect and perpetuate that long-ago myth first spun by Reagan.