Blocking welfare dollars for cigarettes, strip clubs: Law & Order or Nanny State?

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Jun. 3, 2014

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In the latest attempt to curb potential abuse of the state welfare system, Pennsylvania lawmakers advanced a bill which would codify policy to prohibit electronic welfare and child-support payment purchases for things like alcohol, tobacco, casinos and strip clubs.

The measure, written by State Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) and co-sponsored by a number of Republicans and Democrats, would put existing policy into Pennsylvania code, amending a law first created in 1967.

Said bill passed through the House Health Committee on Monday, but not without protest by some Democrats. State Rep. Mike O’Brien (D-Phila), for instance, argued that Republicans were promoting the “nanny state” with the idea. Recipients of public cash for food and child care want to spend that money on cigarettes and booze? Well, he argued, that’s their choice.

“If someone chooses to take money that they should be using for food for their children and to buy liquor with it, it’s a lack of personal responsibility,” he said, according to CBS 3, “and for the Commonwealth to try to impose that responsibility on them, it seems to me, is bordering on the nanny state.”

Rep. Pamela DeLissio, a Democrat of Philadelphia, also made the nanny state comparison.

"Laws after laws, just for the sake of more laws," she said. "For that reason I'll be a 'no' vote."

Such legislation is part of an ongoing effort often promoted by conservatives, to apparently do one of two things, depending on who you ask: Either a) chip away at welfare abuse, or, b) discriminate against the poor. Such social engineering -- telling the poor what they can and cannot use their assistance on -- is a much bigger issue being dealt with in the U.S., and has broad consequences. 

Before the Health Committee passed Rep. Reese’s bill, a growing number of states had been considering, and enacting, similar legislation as part of a conservative economic movement in the United States, first made popular after (and by) the presidential election of Barack Obama.

In fact, at least 10 states passed such laws between 2000 and 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Then, in 2012, the federal government decided to step in and make such requirements permanent, banning sales of tobacco, alcohol, strip club services, and casino usage via public assistance. Some states have blocked the money being used for tattoos, as well. 

Those requirements were part of a deal made between President Obama and Congressional Republicans to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits during his first term.

Restrictions are already current policy of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. But policy to codification would make the law official and, perhaps, more tightly enforced. So, it’s all good, right?

Maybe. Some argue the law can’t be enforced.

After all, if you’re not allowed to swipe your card at a corner store for a pack of cigarettes, who’s to say you don’t use, say, an ATM to take out cash? 

Part of the law – which does not yet have a date in front of the full Pennsylvania House – would make it impossible to use Electronic Benefits Transfer cards at ATM machines in casinos. Other states have made it impossible to use EBT cards at liquor store ATMs, but if you’re someone who really wants their liquor, or likes to gamble, you’ll probably find a way. ATMs are not in short order and certainly not limited to liquor stores and casinos. 

If you take the example of tattoos, for instance: Tattoos are usually paid for in cash. The state would be hard-pressed to figure out if you used your government money for ink if you got it from an outside ATM—unless, of course, it was literally written on your face with a needle.

Reese, the same lawmaker primarily sponsoring this bill, has thought of that. He has another bill waiting in the wings which would bar taking cash out of any ATM, using a state welfare benefit card. 

There’s a greater debate at issue here, too. That is, whether or not those receiving public dollars for assistance are even regular users of vices, and is it really worth spending extra money on a likely minority of those who are? 

You don’t have to look far to hear a story – whether real or perceived – of so-called “welfare queens” spending their government cash on luxury items. Nor is it rare to hear of addicts using start-of-the-month welfare dollars to feed their habit. 

But anecdotal observations only tell part of the story. If you look at the numbers surrounding welfare, such “he said/she said” cases seem to be in the minority. In fact, the majority of people who receive welfare in the United States are able-bodied and looking for work, but often cannot find regular, living wages and are forced onto regular welfare payments. 

As for a case study, when welfare recipient drug testing has been implemented, it has failed to prove its premise—miserably. In addition to being struck down by judges all over the country over privacy issues, it was found to be a solution in search of a problem. In places like Michigan, where a drug-testing law was created, less than 10 percent of recipients tested positive for drugs. And if you’re counting “hard” drugs, the number was about 3 percent. Usually, these so-called "nanny state" restrictions and hoops with which to jump through end up costing states thousands more than they save.

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1. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2014 at 07:49AM

“If taxpayers are footing the bill for your food and giving you money, YES, they DO have a right to tell you how to spend it! Want stuff the rest of us can't have??? Go get a job and use your own money. The problem is not that folks are hungry, it is that they are not hungry ENOUGH! The American safety net has now become a hammock.”

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2. bullconner said... on Jun 22, 2014 at 05:21AM

“The republican legislature should start deducting money from THEIR checks and give to the school system.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jun 22, 2014 at 10:34AM

“Obrien is an idiot!!!”

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