Meanness and Irony in Kansas

Irony abounds in our political culture, perhaps in all political cultures. But, these days, if you want to find irony in its most exquisite form, you need to look at the Kansas of Sam Brownback.

The Washington Post reports this morning that the Kansas legislature has approved a new measure that limits the amount of money a recipient of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can withdraw from an ATM at one time. The limit is $25. The problem, actually one of the problems, is that there are fees attached to ATM withdrawals. So, a poor person might be paying as much as $30 in fees in order to withdraw $200. That is a fifteen percent surtax, and besides, $30 is a lot of money to someone who qualifies for TANF.

The so-called rationale for the new restrictions is that the legislators do not want the recipients of government assistance splurging on luxuries. They might buy alcohol or cigarettes or spend some money in a casino. The poor, you see, are not allowed to enjoy life. They are, and should be, miserable. If you let them withdraw the whole $400 a month, or usually less depending on how the benefit is calculated, they might think they are rich and go buy, I don’t know, an elevator for their car or something.

Many poor people rely on public transportation, so they do not go to the grocery store every day. Many do not have regular bank accounts, which usually require a minimum balance, so they rely on ATMs to withdraw funds under the TANF program. I do not know if any of the Kansas legislators has been grocery shopping recently, but $25 does not go very far.

The first irony here is that these same conservative legislators always prate about the value of individual freedom and warning against intrusive big government.  Yet, they are here keen limit whatever freedoms a poor person might enjoy and to try and keep them from spending foolishly, or at least from spending foolishly in one lump sum.

The second, related, irony is that these are the same conservative politicians who whine about government regulation of businesses. Many, probably most, corporations benefit from certain tax breaks which are far more costly to taxpayers than are programs like TANF. Why is it okay to regulate the one and not the other?

The third irony is that the Kansas legislature is addressing a problem that does not apparently exist. Most poor people who qualify for TANF funds are single moms who are likely to use the money for diapers and other necessities. But, in the same way voter restriction legislation has passed in several states, largely through campaigns funded by the Koch Brothers, even though there is no evidence of systemic voter fraud in the country, a stray anecdote here – money from a TANF account was accessed form an ATM at a casino – and a tale there – an ATM at a baseball park was used to access TANF funds -  are turned into a narrative: The poor are living high on the hog at taxpayer expense, and legislative action is needed.

Facts are stubborn things, but they are not always persuasive things. A narrative is usually more effective in politics than a well-researched study of a problem, which shows the limits of President Obama’s “good policy is good politics” approach to governance. And, today’s rightwing, starting back with the late Sen. Jesse Helms’ famous “white hands” ad, is brilliant at stoking resentment against America’s underclass. It is evil, but it is effective.

There is something even uglier than irony at work here. This new legislation in Kansas is designed to pit the working poor against the desperately poor. Many working poor families would love the chance to bring their kids to a ballgame but they can’t afford it. So, you spread the tale that those who are desperately poor are using government funds to bring their kids to the ballgame, and resentment is stoked. In fact, in this economy that kills, to borrow a phrase, there are many people who are disadvantaged and harmed. We call them the 99 percent. It is the job of progressive politicians to build solidarity among those who are harmed. It is the job of conservative politicians to sow division. I fear that the conservatives are often better at their job.

This episode shows another deeper problem. It is good that our country has programs like TANF to help the desperately poor. But, instead of looking for restrictions on the little amount of money they receive, should we not look at ways to increase the amount of money a poor family can receive if they are purchasing good things for their family? Last week, I wrote about Robert Putnam’s discussion of the need for “on ramps” for the underclass to reintegrate them into society. Instead of making the poor pay a significant share of their benefits in ATM fees, why not offer them extra benefits for trombone lessons for their kids, or the amount needed to join the school baseball team. The Kansas legislature likes its sticks, but do they not like carrots in Kansas?

The problem of helping the poor live lives of dignity without creating a culture of dependency is not an easy problem. But, the new legislation in Kansas is demonstrably not the way to move forward. It is mean-spirited. It is hypocritical. It is stupid. It is the Kansas of Sam Brownback and the voters have no one but themselves to blame. 

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