I know I should be careful about giving the oxygen of publicity to truly awful ideas, especially during an election campaign, but there is something hideously fascinating about the state of mind behind a new set of proposals recently approved by the State legislature in Kansas (incidentally, where my brother-in-law lives). Recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families are to be limited to a maximum withdrawal of $25 in any one day, which could be tough if they want to buy shoes for children. Beyond that, a large number of activities will be forbidden to them. The report on CNN has a long list of items including
body piercings, massages, spas, tobacco, nail salons, lingerie, arcades, cruise ships or visits to psychics … spending the funds at theme parks, dog or horse racing tracks, a “sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”
From other reports it appears that the list also extends to swimming pools, alcohol and cinemas.
So what’s wrong with that? Three things. The first is a misunderstanding of what income maintenance payments do. The whole point of using money for distributing goods is that people get the money and they buy the goods they choose to have, rather than the goods we think they ought to have instead. If government wants them to have something different, they have the option of providing the goods rather than the money. The reason why most governments don’t is that they think markets work better. Not, it seems, in the land of the free.
The second problem is a deep contempt for people who receive state benefits – partly punitive, partly puritanical, a determination to ensure that poor people shouldn’t ever have any entertainments. Right-wing conservatives have always been concerned with the intrusive ‘nanny state’; this is an extreme example. The third objection is the presumptuous foolishness of the list. It’s presumptuous because it assumes that it’s possible for government to control how money is used – it isn’t. Anything that can be bought and sold can be traded. It’s foolish because of what it includes, and what it doesn’t. Children shouldn’t learn to swim? Women shouldn’t buy underwear? Really?