With a record 46 million Americans in poverty, a bill has passed the U.S. House that would make it illegal to withdraw welfare funds at automated teller machines in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.
The legislation, formally titled the Welfare Integrity Now for Children and Families Act of 2011, passed the House 395 to 27 this week.
House Republicans want the provisions in the bill to be part of a pending agreement to extend the payroll tax cut. The chief sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), represents a district in the fourth poorest state in the U.S., Louisiana.
Over 15% of the total population in the U.S. lives in poverty. The number of poor Americans is the highest in 51 years at 46 million, roughly 1 in 7 people, below the poverty line according to the CENSUS Bureau. Further, 22% of children in America live in poverty, the highest percentage since 1993 and the highest number of children, 16 million, since 1963, according to the Brookings Institution.
The number of Americans relying on welfare has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and food stamps, also known as SNAP, are turned to by many struggling Americans. The average monthly TANF allotment per household is $499. The average food stamp allotment per person is $4.45 a day.
The vote puts many members in a risky political position. Voting against the legislation could easily become a campaign issue in fall campaigns and spun as support for welfare fraud. When Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who has been an advocate of the poor, was asked why he voted in favor of Boustany’s bill, and whether it was a “political trap” he quickly answered “yes” when talking to Politic365.
Another member who voted “yes,” was Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), who represents Harlem. “It was ridiculous — another political move,” he told Politic365 shaking his head in an interview.
Several members who represent some of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation voted in favor of Boustany’s bill. They include Reps. Jose Serrano (D-NY) who represents the poorest congressional district in the U.S. and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) who represents the second poorest.
When Boustany was asked about his legislation he said, “we have an obligation to make sure the money — which are federal tax dollars — gets into the hands of those who need it… what we’re trying to do is shut down an abuse. There are arguments made that this is going to shut down access and that’s an entirely bogus argument,” Rep. Boustany, said.
“This is trying to cut down on the blatant abuses,” Boustany added. When asked if he was concerned that the GOP could be tagged as a party with no compassion given the record poverty in the country, Boustany said, “those are attempts to get political points and that really does not constitute real policy.”
News reports citing individuals who spent their assistance in strip clubs, liquor stores, and casinos was referenced by Rep. Boustany. Over the last ten years there have been several news reports on taxpayer money wasted or “lost” in other cases — such as Iraq — running in the billions of dollars. No legislation has passed in the House during the 112th Congress confronting the issue of that waste.
In June 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that $6.6 billion dollars in American taxpayer money was “lost” in Iraq. Last week, CNN reported that a Department of Defense audit showed that $2 billion dollars in taxpayer money was missing.
When questioned about billions of taxpayer’s money that has disappeared in those cases, Boustany said, “We have an obligation to root out waste fraud and abuse in all programs and we’re working on those.” Boustany also made the point that his subcommittee’s oversight jurisdiction does not include Iraq.
Several of the 27 members who voted against Boustany’s legislation were pointed in their criticism and said cost would be an issue.
“It’s an expensive thing to do. They’re going to re-program every ATM machine? You’re putting an expensive burden on local and state governments. What’s the real purpose? Is there a huge problem with people paying for lap dancing with TANF cards?,” said Democrat Rep. Jerrold Nadler who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York.
“The taxpayer dollar is being wasted by setting up this expensive mandate to tamper and reset every ATM machine around the state,” said Nadler added.
Rep. Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents St. Louis, said, “I see it as being unworkable. I think it’s wrong. I think they’re out of line and trying to score cheap political points.”
“Because a person cashes a check in a casino doesn’t mean they are going to use it in the casino. There’s no law that says that a person who cashes the check across the street at a bank can’t just do that and walk into a casino,” said Rep. Don Payne, a Democrat who represents Newark. N.J.
“It just made no sense to me and I think it was just a statement against people in need. It’s just mean spirited to kick people because they’re down and I don’t think it makes sense,” Payne added.
“It just shows that the Republican party is making race the major issue. They’re doing that to try to stimulate votes to come out so they can have a political wave to try to excite their people into voting. Strictly race — we can see that this election is going to be based on race and this is another type of racial subtlety they are using in their campaign,” Payne pointedly added.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wondered how it would be enforced and questioned why poor people should be barred from entertainment.
“I don’t think just because you’re on welfare that you should never drink a beer,” said Rep. Frank. “It’s impossible to enforce and it’s a violation of states rights,” Barney Frank said. “If you want to say people who are on welfare can’t have entertainment that’s one thing but why should they be able to go to a movie but not to a naked person dancing — I don’t make a moral distinction there,” Frank added.
Only one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) voted against the legislation. In a statement he said, “News reports… allege that welfare recipients have spent their cash payments at strip clubs, liquor stores, and casinos. Politicians and the media have falsely asserted that this bill prohibits the use of welfare funds at those establishments…. Members of Congress should stop misleading the public.”
LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE, Politic365 Chief Congressional Correspondent, publishes the blog Crewof42 on the Congressional Black Caucus. She is heard every Tuesday on WMCS 1290 in Milwaukee on Earl Ingram’s show The Evening Rush as well as on WHUR and WPFW in Washington DC. You can follow her on twitter at @crewof42