Dear Kansas, Punishing the Poor Won't Solve Your Budget Mess


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brownback.jpgKansas’s fiscal woes have become the stuff of legend. Thanks to disastrous income tax cuts championed by Gov. Sam Brownback, the state government repeatedly has been forced to slash spending. The projected revenue shortfall for the fiscal year beginning in July is $600 million.

The budget crisis is so bad that some school districts have been forced to end the school year early. Yet Kansas lawmakers are wasting time tackling trumped-up problems around how poor people use their meager but much-needed cash benefits.

Just last week, the Kansas legislature passed a bill that would limit the daily amount of money TANF recipients can withdraw from an ATM to $25. The bill would also ban recipients from withdrawing benefits at ATMs in movie theaters, casinos, nail salons, and pools. The maximum amount of time Kansas can receive TANF benefits would be reduced from 48 to 36 weeks, a stingy amount of time for families struggling to find employment or gain the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. The measure also bans those who fail a required drug test from ever receiving welfare benefits.

All of this is reasonable only in a world where pernicious stereotypes about poor people are true. The fact is poor communities have few resources. A nail salon may provide the closest ATM. Furthermore, Kansas’s drug testing program has turned up 11 positive results out of 2,783 applicants since it began in 2014, at a cost of $40,000 (similar programs in other states, like Florida and Tennessee, have also been unproductive). Poor people are no more likely than the general population to use illegal drugs, and if the .004 percent rate of positive drug tests in Kansas is any indication, they actually have a lower likelihood than the general population.

The Kansas measure is likely to fail in its stated goals since the legislation will not prevent the behavior lawmakers seek to curtail. It will, however, make it harder for poor people to live their daily lives. One state senator told the Wichita Eagle that some of her constituents rely on TANF benefits to pay rent, and that the $25 ATM limit will make it harder to manage money. The small daily withdrawal limit will increase the amount of ATM fees that TANF beneficiaries must pay, cutting into the purchasing power of their already-meager benefits. But banks will win in the form of more frequent ATM fees.

Policies like the ones in Kansas increase costs and make outcomes worse. Since 2011, TANF enrollment has dropped by half in Kansas, despite the rate of children in poverty increasing in the state during the same period.

The reduced welfare rolls are no accident. Research shows the best way to build communities and strengthen families is through strategies that increase employment and opportunity, but Kansas lawmakers have taken the more expedient, less rational route of making the TANF program so onerous that it’s too difficult to enroll. One supportive opinion writer argues that the law “isn’t designed to hurt the poor, but to make their poverty uncomfortable.” But trying to make poverty more uncomfortable so that people move out poverty is like trying to put out a house fire with kerosene.

This brings us to the ulterior motive shared by state legislators and Gov. Brownback: state coffers are dry thanks to their tax cuts, they have a budget to balance, and Kansans on public assistance make an easy target.

To be fair, Kansas isn’t the only state to use TANF money for other needs. Misery, after all, loves company. But Kansas, thanks to its regressive tax cut “experiment,” is a particularly galling example. Recently, Gov. Brownback doubled down on his support for zeroing out the state’s income tax, claiming a shift to consumption taxes would create more growth. It’s the same old song he sang when he asked for income tax cuts in the first place, and the growth never came. The governor backed up his talk by suggesting regressive cigarette and alcohol tax increases to shore up the budget gap caused by his giveaway to the wealthy and corporations.

So in Kansas, low-income working families get it coming and going. State lawmakers have cut taxes for the well-off and increased taxes that fall more heavily on middle- and low-income Kansans. Meanwhile, they’ve made programs designed to help lift Kansans out of poverty less effective to save money. Taking from those who have the least seems to be of the foundation of Gov. Brownback’s entire economic development strategy.

Time and again, lawmakers enact restrictions on safety net programs that serve no purpose other than distracting voters from real problems that lawmakers don’t want to deal with. But politicians find it politically convenient to blame the poor for wasting tax dollars and making poor decisions. They would be better served by looking in the mirror.

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