By JJ Feinuar
April 20, 2015
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has found his state smack dab in the center of one of the most nuanced, and heated, debates concerning poverty.
On April 16, Brownback signed HB 2258, a bill that creates “prohibitions on where benefit money can be spent, as well as stricter requirements for eligibility and a shorter time frame to receive benefits” for those who receive welfare, according to The Wichita Eagle.
The bill has stirred up passionate feelings not only about the role of the government in supporting the poor, but also about how the poor are perceived by lawmakers. The law, which also shortens the amount of time recipients can benefit from the program (it used to be a maximum of 48 months, now it’s 36) is being painted as overly paternalistic and degrading to those in Kansas who suffer momentary poverty.
“A lot of people feel like this law is mean-spirited,” The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi said on MSNBC Saturday, adding that the restrictions “make some advocates feel like lawmakers are basically saying the poor can’t be trusted to manage their own money.”
According to The Wichita Eagle, Brownback said the law acted as “a way to promote self-reliance and lift people out of poverty by pushing them back into the workforce.”
And when it comes to welfare laws, “self-reliance” is arguably one of the more contentious buzzwords around.
In a column last month about the state of poverty assistance in America, The New York Times’ David Brooks pontificated on a variation of the “self-reliance” theme: Self-control.
“It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms,” Brooks wrote in his commentary on how to best combat the “economic stress and family breakdown” of millions of Americans.
According to Brooks, Americans who suffer through poverty are reaping the effects of a moral crisis in America. Self-control has fallen out of fashion, and teaching that to the poor would do more than any government subsidized poverty program.
“The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens,” he continued. “In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
“Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary,” Brooks concluded.
So it seems as if Brownback is trying to shape Kansas’ welfare programs to do just that: Promote good “habits and virtues” that will ultimately help the poor lift themselves out of poverty.
But in the wake of Brooks’ column, The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig took issue with his assertion that poverty is a crisis of personal morality among the poor.
“Brooks’ underlying assumption is wrong,” Bruenig wrote. “The baseline moral values of poor people do not, in fact, differ that much from those of the rich.”
For example, Bruenig cites research from Donald Braman’s book, “Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America,” which examines the attitudes those in urban poverty have toward incarceration. She also cites a recent Gallup poll that found those in poverty value marriage just as much as the middle and upper-class.
“Poor people, whatever their material circumstances might compel them to do, don’t seem to lack a moral compass,” she concluded.
Much of the tension around the Kansas law has stemmed from an implication of a faulty “moral compass” among the poor. Some wonder why certain leisure activities that could help alleviate the burden of poverty — such as going to the movies — are prohibited. Another point of concern is that the specific restrictions on other activities — such as going to a psychic — imply that there is a significant amount of welfare money being wasted on these things.
“It really seems to make a statement about how we feel about the poor,” Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, told The Christian Science Monitor.
“These are fringe cases,” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann wrote in an article about whether or not the poor have a habit of frivolous spending. “And they’re used to demonize a group of people who are often working extremely hard just to get by.”