AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Welfare recipients in Kansas will soon be barred from spending their benefits on activities like going to the movies or swimming. That's if, as expected, Governor Sam Brownback signs one of the strictest welfare laws in the country. It's among a number of such measures popping up in states right now. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The Kansas measure is called the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone, or, HOPE Act. And supporters hope it leads to more welfare recipients getting work. Here's Republican Michael O'Donnell on the floor of the state Senate last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL O'DONNELL: That's our goal. I think everyone in this room has the same feeling and same dedication to making sure that Kansans have high quality of life. And you don't have high quality of life if you don't have a job.
FESSLER: And the measure does include work and job training requirements for those on welfare, called Temporary Assistance for Families, or TANF. But the bill also imposes new restrictions - a three-year lifetime limit on getting benefits, a $25 a-day limit on cash withdrawals from an ATM and a long list of things that recipients can't spend their benefits on, everything from casinos, cruises and strip joints to movies, jewelry and swimming. Shannon Cotsoradis heads the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children.
SHANNON COTSORADIS: I think it suggests that this is what families on cash assistance do with their dollars, and I think that's a far cry from the reality.
FESSLER: She says most families on welfare, which averages less than $300 a month in Kansas, are struggling to make ends meet, not planning a Caribbean cruise. Cotsoradis says what bothers her even more is the three-year lifetime limit on benefits because families will be dropped from the rolls even if they can't find work.
COTSORADIS: And I think it's shortsighted because what happens at the end of the day is the children living in those families suffer and we set the stage for another generation of poor adults, kids who haven't really had the benefit of having their basic needs met as children.
FESSLER: And Kansas isn't the only state considering new restrictions. On Monday, Maine's Governor Paul LePage offered a welfare plan that, among other things, would prevent benefits from being spent out of state. A Missouri House committee is considering a measure to prohibit the withdrawal of any cash assistance from an ATM. Another lawmaker wants to ban the use of food stamps to buy fish, after one recipient boasted about eating lobster. Mark Rank is a professor of social welfare at Washington University. He calls some of the restrictions ludicrous.
MARK RANK: What's going on is basically people are scoring political points by going after the poor and welfare recipients.
FESSLER: Rank says it's part of a long tradition, perhaps made most famous by President Ronald Reagan who repeatedly talked about a woman who defrauded the government extensively, the so-called welfare queen.
RANK: The old stereotype that people who are poor are basically at fault, people who are using welfare are basically abusing the system.
FESSLER: When welfare fraud is relatively limited. But even so, it's worth going after, says Kansas Representative Travis Couture Lovelady, especially if the money can be better spent on those who really need it. He says the purpose of the new Kansas law is to make clear that benefits are not for entertainment but for basic necessities like food, rent and utilities.
TRAVIS COUTURE LOVELADY: It's not to look down on those folks in any way at all. It's trying to help lift them up in the work programs that have been very successful. I don't see it as being harsh on the folks that really need the assistance because they're not using it in these inappropriate manners anyway.
FESSLER: And he thinks the three-year lifetime limit on benefits is reasonable. He says some lawmakers wanted to cut it to two. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.