Missouri and Kansas Try To Make Poor People’s Choices For Them

cashregisterTwo new bills that would further regulate the use of welfare benefits gained headlines as the latest examples of paternalism masquerading as policy. Last week, the Kansas legislature passed a bill that would limit the daily amount of money welfare recipients can withdraw from an ATM to $25. The bill would also ban recipients from withdrawing benefits at certain locations, such as movie theaters, nail salons, and pools. Residents with multiple felony drug convictions would be banned from drawing welfare benefits for life, as would those who fail a required drug test (Since it began in 2014, the drug testing program has turned up 11 positive results out of 2,783 applicants, at a cost of $40,000).

Missouri shares a border with Kansas, as well as the seeming ambition to take Florida’s title as worst state in the Union. There, lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban food stamp recipients from purchasing “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.” In the bill, energy drinks are specifically defined as not including coffee “or any substantially coffee-based beverage.”

The current budget crisis in Kansas is so bad that some school districts have been forced to end the school year early. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Missouri has seen some race riots as of late. And lawmakers are spending their time making sure that poor people can have coffee, but not Rockstar?

There's something you didn't know you missed.

There’s something you didn’t know you missed.

Time and again, lawmakers enact restrictions on welfare programs that serve no purpose other than distracting voters from the (usually) miserable job our governments are doing for most people. As I’ve written before, the best anti-poverty program is money. But politicians find it easier to blame the poor for wasting tax dollars and making poor decisions. They would be better served by looking in the mirror.

The Kansas and Missouri measures are likely to fail in their stated goals. Neither bill can fully prevent the behavior lawmakers seek to curtail. Restricting the items that food stamps can purchase or the amount of welfare money a recipient can withdraw at one time isn’t going to magically make people more frugal. It will just make it harder for people to live their daily lives.

That’s not to mention the increased cost of regulation associated with the proposals. What, for instance, qualifies as seafood? Canned tuna? Frozen shrimp? Lobster? Steak is a similarly vague food category. Do we really need government lawyers to waste taxpayer money crafting myriad rules for what chips food stamp recipients can buy or ensuring that beneficiaries aren’t getting manicures?

Conservative ideology around the “deservingness” of the poor drives the push to adopt bad policies in Kansas and Missouri, but progressive voters deserve a share of the blame elsewhere. Many ideas, from bans on plastic shopping bags to restrictions on public smoking, are popular with liberals despite their failure to achieve stated public policy goals because they play well with the public. We rarely ask if these goals could be met in less intrusive or more effective ways.

Public policy should be designed to maximize outcomes at minimal cost; any other principle would fail to responsibly use our common resources or serve our common interests. The best policies – like implementing a basic income or removing restrictive occupational licensing requirements – make it easier to individuals to make choices for themselves. Bad policies, like the proposals in Kansas and Missouri, introduce arbitrary and unnecessary hurdles. They increase costs and make outcomes worse. Since 2011, welfare enrollment has dropped by half in Kansas, despite the rate of poverty increasing in the state during the same period.

It’s sad that we keep going back to the same old well for our policy solutions, instead of thinking creatively and clearly. But in a democracy we get the government we deserve, not always the one we need.