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Michael Hiltzik

Kansas to break new ground in demeaning the poor?

Kansas, still looking for scapegoats, turns its fire on welfare recipients

Like a brained and wounded animal in the wild, the government of Kansas has been lashing out in all directions at its supposed tormentors. Since its problems are exclusively those of its own making, the spectacle is all the more horrific.

The latest targets of the state's Republican-controlled legislature--and presumably of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback--are the state's relief recipients. By the terms of a measure now awaiting Brownback's signature, they're going to be saddled with dozens of directives and limitations on how and where they can spend their relief assistance.

Some of these are just stupid (no "cruise ships"!), some are intrusive (no movies, no swimming pools), and some are stupid, intrusive and counterproductive (no ATM withdrawals of more than $25 a day).

More on that in a moment.

The measure is part and parcel of an alarming trend in Kansas government and politics. It follows a decree that the ultra-conservative Brownback issued in February rescinding state employees' protections against job discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation. Those protections for LGBT employees had been established in 2007 by Brownback's predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, who asked to bring Kansas up to date with most of corporate America and 31 other states.

Meanwhile, Brownback's efforts to crater the Kansas economy and mortgage its future through relentless budget-cutting have continued. Two Kansas school districts have announced early ends to the school year because of cutbacks in state funding of K-12 education this year. Those amounted to at least $28 million, or more than 1.5%, but they came on top of cuts in previous years. Because they were imposed in midyear, moreover, school districts say they had limited options for absorbing the cuts.

Since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kansas has reduced per-pupil spending by an inflation-adjusted $950, more than all other states but Alabama and Wisconsin. (See accompanying graphic.) The cuts reflect a budget impoverished by sharp tax cuts imposed by Brownback, a tea party favorite, during his first term. 

Brownback's contention from the start has been that the tax cuts will provide a fuel for a Kansas economic takeoff, but that hasn't materialized. The education cuts, which include budget reductions for Kansas public universities, will only make it harder for the state to wriggle out of its deteriorating economic position.

Given the suffering that these policies already have created, it's perhaps unsurprising that the legislature and governor would be looking around for scapegoats. Welfare recipients, as always, became a convenient target. (As of late Tuesday, Brownback's office had not announced that he had signed the bill, but he was earlier reported to be viewing it favorably.)

Kansas GOP lawmakers described the aim of the proposed restrictions as "trying to make sure those benefits are used the way they were intended," in the words of Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita senator. "This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life."

But they were typical of the punitive and demeaning impositions of welfare programs throughout American history. The thinking is: (1) these people can't be trusted to manage their benefits themselves, and (2) they're on welfare in the first place because of their low morals, so they need to be watched by hawks.

That explains the blue-nosed assumptions of many of the restrictions: no spending at sporting or entertainment events, horse or dog tracks,  or on "sexually oriented adult materials." The list of bans provides a terrific window into lawmakers' classist impressions of the predilections of the average relief recipient: no spending at any "jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor ... psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade ... or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state." As for the $25 limit daily on ATM withdrawals, of course it renders using debit cards for major spending, such as the rent, while piling up ATM fees at $1 per withdrawal, plus bank fees. Good for the banks, at least, and a very nice way to squeeze the poor just a teensy bit more.

Kansas lawmakers must have been kept up nights by visions of welfare recipients hanging out at morally repugnant locations. But real statistics indicate that this spending is not significant. In Maine, for example, conservative Gov. Paul LePage went on a similar rant last year about that state's welfare clients having made 3,000 welfare department debit card transactions over three years in smoke shops, bars, strip clubs and sports pubs.

In that period, however, there had been 1.8 million transactions, so the targeted withdrawals amounted to all of two tenths of one percent of the total--and many of them may have been ATM withdrawals from machines on the premises.

The people who find measures like this easiest to enact are those without a speck of empathy for and understanding of anyone who doesn't live on their street. They're the antithesis of decent politicians. Harry Hopkins, who established the New Deal relief structure under Franklin Roosevelt, understood very well their impulse to demean the poor, because he had spent much of his career watching the process unfold, to his disgust.

The mindset of relief workers in that era, Hopkins observes, was that "the applicant was in some way morally deficient [and] must be made to feel his pauperism.... Every help which was given him was to be given in a way to intensify his shame."

An especially degrading practice was to pay out relief in the form of grocery slips, which were subject to a long list of forbidden merchandise--no tobacco, no razors. Hopkins abominated the system: "It is a matter of opinion whether more damage is done to the human spirit by a lack of vitamins or complete surrender of choice."

Hopkins could have dictated the Kansas welfare amendments from his own memory. He would have understood the drafters' goal: crush the spirit of the welfare recipient. Who cares about them--those tattooed, body-pierced, drunken, gambling, porn-obsessed figments of the Kansas legislature's nightmares--anyway?

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email mhiltzik@latimes.com.

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