The following editorial appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post:
Kansas’s punitive strike against the poor might be backfiring.
Last month the state’s leaders restricted the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which gives the working poor and those seeking jobs a monthly cash benefit. Recipients are now barred from spending their government cash at swimming pools, movie theaters, tattoo parlors and other places Kansas lawmakers deemed unworthy.
This pandering-to-the-tea-party policy was bad enough in that it singled out the needy, who are hardly the only recipients of government aid, based on a few anecdotal accounts of misuse while overlooking the grinding reality of everyday poverty in which choices are as limited as they are tough.
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But another piece of the law will have much more severe practical consequences on Kansas’s poor: As of July 1, welfare recipients will be able to withdraw cash benefits of only $25 per day. This might make it harder to buy big-ticket items on impulse – Cruise tickets? Drugs? Who knows? – on the taxpayer’s dime. But it will also make it more difficult to pay rent, utility bills and other necessities in cash, as many needy families do: As FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco pointed out, a recipient planning to use benefits to make a $600 rent payment will need to make daily withdrawals for weeks to set aside enough. It gets worse: Many ATMs dispense only $20 bills, which effectively lowers the maximum withdrawal by another $5.
And welfare recipients who use ATMs will pile up significant fees simply to access the money they are due under the program. Withdrawing a mere $200, about half the typical monthly benefit, could cost $30 or more, The Post’s Max Ehrenfreund calculated. The state charges $1 for each withdrawal. Then there are private ATM fees. Needy families could turn to money orders to pay for certain necessities, but those also come with fees and added hassle.
A cynical read is that Kansas’s $25 withdrawal limit is a stealth strategy to reduce real welfare benefits for the working poor. A more charitable view is that Kansas lawmakers and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback didn’t realize the extent of the burden they were imposing on their poor constituents, to the perverse benefit of ATM operators. Either way, the policy will be reviewed in Washington for compliance with federal law. The Social Security Act demands “access to using or withdrawing assistance with minimal fees or charges.” Noncompliance with this mandate could lead the federal government to withhold $100 million in yearly funding from the state.
State leaders are now frantically trying to avoid losing their benefits from Washington. Brownback told the McClatchy Washington Bureau that his administration will work with federal officials to keep the tap running. State lawmakers are thinking about raising the withdrawal limit, perhaps to $60, in new legislation. We have a better idea: Get rid of the policy altogether, and cut the fees the poor face to obtain their benefits, too.