Poverty looks pretty great if you're not living in it. The government gives you free money to , on , on — why not? — cruise vacations and psychic visits.
Enough serious-minded people seem to think this is what the poor actually buy with their meager aid that we've seen a raft of bills and proposed state laws to nudge them away from so much excess. Missouri wants to curtail what the (evidence of the problem from one state legislator: "I have seen people purchasing filet mignons"). There are the states that — the implication being that we worry the poor will convert their benefits directly into drugs.
And on Thursday, Kansas blocked welfare recipients from (in legalese: any "sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment"). It also bans them from spending money on swimming pools, movies, casinos or tattoos.
Sometimes these laws are cast as protection for the poor, ensuring that aid is steered in ways that will help them the most. Other times they're framed as protection for the taxpayer, who shouldn't be asked to help people who will squander the money on vices anyway.
But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways.
The first is economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way. The idea that they do defies — the notion that we all need shelter and food before we go in search of foot massages. In fact, the poor are much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have less of it (quick quiz: do you know exactly how much you last spent on a gallon of milk? or ?). By definition, a much higher share of their income — — is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway. And contrary to the logic of drug-testing laws, the poor are than the population at large.
The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.
That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits — farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks — don't recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too. That's because government gives money directly to poor people, but it gives benefits to the rest of us in ways that allow us to tell ourselves that we get nothing from government at all.
Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called this effect the Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they're submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don't have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don't have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us).
Mettler's research has shown that who don't think they get anything from government . This explains why we get election-season soundbites from confused voters who want policymakers to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" This is also what enables politicians to gin up indignation among small-government supporters who don't realize they rely on government themselves.