Engaging with…the Reality of Government Assistance

By Brad O’Neil

The headlines won’t seem to stop.

Drug testing recipients of government assistance, threatening the removal of cash assistance from families with children who miss too much school, establishing limitations on food items that can be purchased with food stamps…it goes on and on.

The latest example – even eliciting a lengthy segment from Jon Stewart last night – comes from Kansas where a bill, ironically called the HOPE Act, is awaiting the signature of Gov. Sam Brownback and is on track to be one of the strictest welfare laws in the country.

Among other things, it would enact a three-year lifetime limit on benefits, restrict daily ATM withdrawals for cash assistance recipients to $25 a day (a difficult proposition considering most ATMs don’t deal in increments of five) and the most absurd, ban the use of cash assistance on cruises – yes, that’s real language, in a real bill, in a state that’s landlocked.

For lawmakers who claim to abhor overregulation, they sure seem to take exception when it comes to regulating the poor.

There’s only one thing wrong with all their new regulations – they’re aimed at imaginary “problems.” They’re fake or if you prefer Webster’s definition, “not true or real: meant to look real or genuine but not real or genuine.”

There’s absolutely no data that show low-income people are more likely to use drugs than the population at large. There’s absolutely no data that show taking away a family’s food stamps will help their children attend school more regularly. There’s absolutely no data that show people who receive nutritional assistance are abusing it. There’s absolutely no data that show limiting people’s access to their cash helps them better manage it. And there’s definitely no data that show there’s a systemic problem with cash assistance use on cruise ships.

So, why the assault on this particular demographic? The answer is simple – they’re an easy target.

Much easier than farmers who receive millions of dollars in federal agricultural subsides every year. Much easier than wealthy homeowners who receive their annual home mortgage interest deductions. And certainly much easier than oil and gas companies who continue to enjoy their infamous tax giveaways despite making billions in profit.

The implication is clear; government assistance is fine, but only for the anointed (who happen to have a huge lobby and money for campaign contributions). Low-income people receiving assistance for the basics? Nope, they’re exploiting the system and need to be reined in. It’s laughable.

The real exploiters are companies like the pharmaceutical giant Merck who paid an effective tax rate of 0% during the second quarter of 2014 or tech giant Apple who’s policy is to keep a majority of their profits overseas to avoid taxation. It seems complaining about the corporate tax rate in the United States isn’t the only thing major corporations have in common – many of them also don’t pay it.

These efforts are not only hypocritical and ill-conceived, they’re wholly offensive in their assumptions and only serve to further stigmatize an already struggling population.

Social safety nets exist for a reason, to help people who are unable to provide for themselves or their families and have nowhere else to turn. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that none of us are immune to that possibility.