Behind the Headline: Florida bill would restrict what can be purchased with welfare

I told you at the beginning of the year there would be some changes on Cat Flag. Today, I’m introducing a new category of news story: Behind the Headline. In these articles, I will take a look at a news story somewhere in the world and find answers to questions about the headline that I find myself asking, questions that I’m sure others would have in mind when they read the story as well.

Today, I’m taking a look at this story from Florida. There, the state legislature is considering a bill to restrict how welfare recipients can spend their money. If the bill passes, money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would no longer be able to use the money they get from the government to buy junk food such as candy, cookies, and chips. They would also be barred from withdrawing cash from their TANF accounts from out-of-state ATMs, or from ATMs in casinos and strip clubs.

The bill was proposed by Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms, and if passed by the state it would still require the approval of the federal government to take effect, because it is federal agencies that control the implementation of welfare programs.

Why should we even care?

This is not the first time such a bill has been proposed. Bills that would restrict how TANF funds can be used have been proposed, but not passed, in Minnesota, New York, Iowa, Texas, and California.

With things like welfare, states often copy each others’ policies; especially when many state budgets are running in the red and the need to cut somewhere becomes urgent. After Florida passed a bill requiring welfare recipients to pass a drug test to receive their benefits, a similar bill was passed in Pennsylvania, and another one is making its way through the Indiana legislature. This could affect people across the nation.

Besides, if there is one thing I have made clear in this blog, it is that I feel we should always care about the poor and underprivileged. I feel it is an important civic responsibility.

Is the misspending of welfare funds really a problem?

According to an investigative report by WSB-TV 2 in Atlanta, TANF money has been spent at liquor stores, golf courses, amusement parks, and even strip clubs. One liquor store reported $13,494 welfare dollars were spent there. A Godiva chocolate seller made $400 of of sales through welfare.

Another report from Georgia, this one made by The Albany Herald, found that 35% of TANF transactions took place either at ATMs to withdraw cash, or at liquor stores. The ATM transactions are suspicious because cash can’t be traced.

How did these news agencies find this information? They got hold of the actual transaction records of Georgia’s Department of Children and Family Services, which handles the program in that state. The Albany Herald said they did this through an Open Records Request.

See, federal and state governments do not provide this information on websites for people to find. I looked. They will provide statistics on how much money is spent on welfare programs, how many people are on these programs, and where these people live and how large of a family they live in, but not on where they spend their money.

Unless I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with every state in the union, I have no way of knowing if the situation in Georgia is the exception or the rule.

I'm just not in a paper-filing mood right now... *YAWN*

And for that matter, I am not surprised by the ATM transactions – it could simply be that many welfare recipients are embarrassed that by their poverty and are trying to hide this fact when they go shopping. And the last time I checked, the liquor stores where I live sell food, home cleaning products, baby formula, pet food, and many other things besides liquor and cigarettes. So, these transactions might be perfectly innocent, they might not.

Remember those laws I mentioned requiring drug testing for welfare recipients? When the tests were run only 2% of those tested were found to be drug-positive.

Can the government even restrict how welfare recipients use their money like this?

The short answer is yes.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as “Food Stamps” – already restricts what its clients can use their money on. They can’t be used to buy beer, paper products, and pet food, for example.

Here in California, low-income mothers can qualify for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides health care and money for food. However, WIC money has to be spent on certain kinds of food, in many cases even specific brands!

We are, after all, talking about taxpayer money. There is nothing making the government give people money besides the laws they write themselves. Welfare in the United States didn’t exist until the New Deal.

Even the Supreme Court has ruled on this one. In Dandridge v. Williams (1970), the court upheld controversial welfare restrictions in Maryland by stating, “Conflicting claims of morality and intelligence are raised by opponents and proponents of almost every measure, certainly including the one before us. But the intractable economic, social, and even philosophical problems presented by public welfare assistance programs are not the business of this Court.”

SHOULD the government even restrict how welfare recipients use their money like this?

I leave that up to you.

Click on the links to find my sources.