The extension on unemployment benefits passed on February 17th was generally seen as a positive development for struggling and low-income families – Congress passed a year-long extension of the benefits, which are crucial to making ends meet for folks who are looking for work. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Hidden in the bill was a provision to restrict where TANF recipients (i.e. recipients of cash assistance, also known as welfare) can get money out.
These days, folks who get cash assistance get a card that works as an ATM card, and are able to go to any ATM to remove available funds. Well, that is until now – Congress’s restriction bans recipients from using ATMs in liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs. This measure is paternalistic, insulting, and absurd in so many ways. First, this provision ignores the fact that although it might be difficult to find something as run of the mill as a grocery store in low-income neighborhoods, there are actually significantly more liquor stores there than in wealthier neighborhoods. Did the legislators that proposed this measure stop to think that perhaps the closest ATM to many recipients of cash assistance might actually be in one of these establishments? Or that they may be the closest ATMs with low fees?
Further, we need to address the wackness of trying to restrict poor folks’ purchases. Often ignored in conversations about welfare are is that TANF recipients actually required to work – 35 hours a week in “training” programs that don’t really train anyone to do anything that’s going to get them out of poverty or even a job that pays above minimum wage, but that’s a conversation for another day. The point is that TANF recipients work, and do so for small amounts of cash assistance which, if you do the math, represents just a fraction of the minimum wage. So here we’ve got folks that are basically working for below-minimum-wage pay, and Congress wants to restrict where they’re able to get that money out based on a racialized idea of lazy welfare queens drinking their days away. Would Congress ever think to try to restrict the purchases of other workers?
Latinas and women of color are disproportionately poor, and this affects women of color and our families most of all. This is not only absurd, it is racist, and it is unnecessarily intrusive into the lives of low-income folks. If Congress is truly concerned with addiction among poor folks, can we see them invest in quality rehabilitation programs? Can we see them invest in the lives of women? Can we see them address the painful social and economic conditions that addicts are trying to numb? Economic justice is reproductive justice – all women deserve to live their lives with dignidad, salud, y justicia.