Conservatives have been outraged since the first of the year, not only because Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but also because some welfare recipients have, so they maintain, used their benefits to purchase it.
In the year 2000, Colorado became one of the now-22 states to legalize the medical use of marijuana. But in 2012, voters in Colorado, like those in the state of Washington, approved a ballot initiative (Amendment 64) that effectively legalized, with restrictions like those on alcohol, the recreational use of marijuana. Colorado’s first stores licensed to sell marijuana officially opened on January 1, 2014.
Back in January, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox News’s Fox and Friends, charged that food stamp recipients in Colorado could use an ATM to get cash that they could in turn use to purchase marijuana.
That, of course, is impossible since, as the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service fact sheet about SNAP (food stamps) explains,
SNAP benefits can never be withdrawn as cash. Many States allow clients to use a single EBT card to access SNAP as well as cash benefit programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In most States, cash benefits from other programs can be accessed through ATMs.
What was happening in Colorado is that welfare recipients who received an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card (a Quest card) with their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits were making cash withdrawals at ATMs in businesses that sold marijuana.
The TANF, which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, was created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. It is a federal program administered by the states by means of block grants that provides temporary cash assistance to needy families. The TANF program was most recently extended in the Continuing Appropriations Resolution for 2015.
According to the Office of Family Assistance, an Office of the Administration for Children & Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the four purposes of the TANF program are to
- Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
- Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
- Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
- Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
According to Office of Family Assistance caseload and financial data, in fiscal year 2013, there were 3,782,146 Americans who received TANF benefits and $16.6 billion in total federal awards to the states.
In Colorado, the average household receiving TANF benefits includes one adult and two children, with their maximum monthly benefit being $462. And according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2012 Colorado spent $136 million in federal TANF block grants and contingency funds.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act (H.R.4137). It would amend part A (TANF) of title IV of the Social Security Act (SSA) “to require a state receiving a TANF grant to maintain policies and practices necessary to prevent assistance under the TANF program from being used in any electronic benefit transfer (via a card) at any establishment that offers marijuana for sale.”
There is also pending in the House a similar bill, the No Welfare For Weed Act (H.R.4142), that also amends the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 “to prohibit the use of [SNAP] benefits to purchase marijuana products.”
But just when it looked like the ATM-EBT marijuana controversy was dying down, out comes a report of an analysis of a Colorado welfare ATM database by Colorado WatchDog.org revealing that “in the past two years at least $489,000 in taxpayer money has been withdrawn” from ATMs at casinos and liquor stores even though it is against both Colorado and federal law. That includes more than $1,500 withdrawn at a Denver strip club. Colorado Department of Human Services officials argue that “while a person might take out money at a location, he or she doesn’t necessarily use the money to buy booze or gamble.”
The analysis of the ATM withdrawals database also showed that “$3.8 million was withdrawn by Colorado welfare recipients outside the state in the past two years,” including withdrawals at “out-of-state liquor stores and tobacco outlets, as well as vacation destinations like Hawaii, Las Vegas and even the Virgin Islands.” “Nearly $8,000 was taken out from out-of-state ATMs in places that had the word bar, liquor store or tobacco in the establishment’s name.”
It is time to cut the card.
It is time to cut up the EBT welfare cards, but not because they are being used to make cash withdrawals in casinos, strip clubs, liquor stores, or vacation destinations. And not because the money might be spent on alcohol, drugs, tobacco, pornography, lottery tickets, casino gambling, lap dances, prostitutes, guns, or ammunition.
According to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), “The federal government currently spends roughly $750 billion each year on means-tested welfare programs across 80 different accounts.” But TANF benefits are the worst form of welfare. Instead of providing the poor, needy, and destitute with housing assistance, energy assistance, food stamps, free student lunches, job training, medical treatment, or prescription drugs, the TANF program provides cold, hard cash. This redistribution of wealth is the ultimate income-transfer program.
It doesn’t matter if the poor, needy, and destitute “need” the money, it doesn’t matter if the money is accessed only in “reputable” businesses, and it doesn’t matter if the money is spent only on “wholesome” goods and services. Money is being taken from some Americans and given to other Americans. Money is being taken from producers and given to consumers. Money is being taken from those who work and given to those who don’t. Money is being taken from taxpayers and given to tax eaters. It is exactly what President Lyndon Johnson said he would do: “We are going to try to take all of the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take it from the ‘haves’ and give it to the ‘have nots’ that need it so much.”
Liberals have accused conservatives of using the ATM-marijuana controversy to “demonize government programs” and to “shame and mock low-income Americans for accepting government assistance.”
But conservatives have no philosophical or principled objection to welfare programs — including the TANF program that pays benefits in cash. Republican Colorado state Rep. Tim Dore has urged limitations on where welfare recipients can use their electronic benefit transfer cards in Colorado. He said the Colorado Department of Human Services needs to enforce the laws. “They are thumbing their nose at Colorado citizens who pay taxes,” he said. “They say, ‘We aren’t going to enforce it and make sure the cards are used for intended purpose — to make sure there is food on the table.’” On the federal level, Senator Sessions said of the government’s welfare programs, “This money is administered by a vast, sprawling bureaucracy with little oversight and no moral vision. Surely we can all agree that the guiding principle ought to be that benefits are reserved for those in real need.”
Conservatives are content with the TANF program as long as it can be reformed and subjected to more oversight; as long as benefits aren’t accessed at casinos, strip clubs, or liquor stores; and as long as they can keep welfare recipients from spending their benefits on lottery tickets instead of school supplies.
But conservatives are not just content; they are complicit.
The original TANF program was up for reauthorization in 2002. After several temporary extensions were granted by a Republican-controlled Congress, it was reauthorized by a Republican-controlled Congress in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 through fiscal year 2010. The program has since then been extended at various times — most recently in the Continuing Appropriations Resolution for 2015, which was passed by a Republican-controlled House — and is due to expire on December 11, 2014.
From not only a libertarian perspective, but a constitutional and limited government perspective as well, the focus should clearly not be on where TANF benefits can be withdrawn, but on the fact that they can be withdrawn at all.