Do Welfare Restrictions Violate Human Dignity?

Do state restrictions on how public welfare recipients can spend benefits offend the dignity of the poor?

Kansas recently enacted a law banning the use of welfare benefits to buy

alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting event tickets or tickets for other entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. [Benefits also cannot be used] in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, pari-mutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.

Other States have followed or plan to follow suit. Missouri, for example, would bar use of welfare benefits to “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank characterized the trend as “the rush to humiliate the poor.”

Do state limits on how welfare benefits can be spent represent an affront to human dignity? My answer is, in general, no (although there can be instances where welfare policy would offend human rights).

I prescind from the obvious political aspects of this debate. It’s been a decade since Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? which argued that Americans who vote conservative inexplicably do so against their own genuine interests. I also note that Kansas governor Sam Brownback is already a liberal bête noire for having just signed a Kansas law barring the use of abortion procedures that dismember unborn children after five months of pregnancy. Those partisan considerations obviously play into efforts to castigate the Kansas welfare bill, though they will not be our primary interest.

Neither will I focus on some of the potentially debatable policy aspects of the Kansas bill. The statute, for example, caps cash withdrawals by welfare recipients at $25 per day which, given transaction fees at some ATMs (as much as $5), has been characterized as a “tax on the poor.”  [The Kansas Catholic Conference separately fought for limits on the predatory lending of payday loans, rightly calling it “usury.”]

I am interested in the moral question.

Emily Badger’s three-fold attack on the Kansas law in the Washington Post scores it on empirical, “moral,” and “political” grounds. Empirically, she contends there is no evidence that welfare recipients actually do spend money on the prohibited items. Morally, she claims the law imposes a morally dubious “double standard”: other beneficiaries of government programs, such as recipients of education grants or farm subsidies, obtain benefits absent restrictions, whereas “the strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.” Politically, she asserts that politicians can get away with such attacks on the poor because, unlike government benefits, welfare is distributed in hard cash. Mortgage tax credit recipients, on the other hand, do not receive tangible dollars for their deductions.

Badger’s empirical argument essentially holds no water. If welfare recipients in fact do not spend money on prohibited items, then any state restrictions have no practical effect on them.

I suspect there is a kind of stealth moral argument being imported here: by enacting prohibitions on empirically non-existent kinds of purchases by welfare recipients, one is impugning their responsibility. But if that is the argument, then it should be made up front as a moral criticism, not as a rider to an empirical claim devoid, in reality, of any practical consequence for welfare recipients.

Badger’s “political” argument is also dubious. The problem is not what kind of benefit the government is providing but why it is providing it. By providing student loans or mortgage deductibility, government is encouraging certain goods, e.g., higher educational levels among the general populace or increased home ownership. But no one can characterize depending on public welfare as a social good. There may be times that it is necessary—perhaps even permanently (as, e.g., among the elderly poor)—but no fair moral assessment would say that having to depend on public assistance to satisfy one’s basic needs is a situation that is good or should be encouraged.

Political forces, undoubtedly, distort policy making. One could argue, for example, that current U.S. government farm subsidies on dairy products are unnecessary, economically distortive, and raise prices, while acknowledging they are unlikely to be repealed as long as the dairy lobby influences Congress. Politics represents political choices, some less noble than others: it’s been said one’s appetite for sausage declines after seeing it actually being made. While politics may affect policy choices (something that is not necessarily a bad thing in a democracy), I am unwilling to say that it so taints the process that those goods which government currently favors through indirect subsidies (e.g., charitable deductions) are no different than direct welfare cash payments.

Which leaves us with the “moral” argument.

Badger and Milbank see any limits on the discretion of welfare recipients about how to spend benefits as immoral bludgeons of their dignity. Badger also sees it as a double standard, in that “only the poor” find their benefits hamstrung by government limits.

Empirically, that’s not true. Any recipient of government educational assistance, for example, faces some “strings.” A student who does not comply with minimum credit loads, makes satisfactory academic progress, or register for Selective Service is out of the federal Pell Grant program. If he is convicted of a drug offense while receiving a grant, he could also lose the money. If a New Jersey college student receives a State Tuition Assistance Grant, he cannot carry that money outside the state, even though many Garden State students who pay their own tuition frequently attend schools outside New Jersey.

Besides, government frequently imposes restrictions even when its money is much more indirectly involved. Missouri is being criticized for banning welfare recipients from buying “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks” with public money; but when the federal government or New York City imposes similar restrictions on public school students buying these same products on school premises with their own money, the framers of such restrictions are lauded for “improving public health” and “fighting childhood obesity.”

Government can inherently put strings on what one can do with government money. It’s called the “power of the purse.” It’s also a fiduciary responsibility: in the real world, where choices about how to use a limited pool of funds have to be made, there are going to be conditions.

There also seems to be a hidden “class conflict” argument here, one that first reared its head forty years ago in the debate over the Hyde Amendment: if the rich can have abortions, denying the poor that “choice” through Medicaid restrictions was “discriminatory.” Both Congress and eventually the Supreme Court rejected that argument. With the current focus on “income inequality” and the “privileges of the rich” (as well as the backdoor attempt to subvert the Hyde Amendment through Obamacare), the argument that the poor should get government money absent any judgments about its use appears in recycle mode.

Unlike some laissez-faire conservatives, who might think of any social welfare benefits as inherently beyond the pale of government responsibility, Catholic social thought recognizes that government provision for a basic social safety net is consistent with and demanded by human dignity. In a modern, industrial/post-industrial economy, there are people who sometimes will need help to make it through a particular phase in life (and some people who will need that help permanently). They should be treated with dignity and respect.

But treating them with dignity and respect also means helping them through that particular phase to a point where they acquire self-sufficiency if this is possible. This may mean—especially when there are large numbers of persons depending on such assistance—that there are restrictions on the use of these benefits.

Governments need to make public assistance provisions, but such provisions should take account of the principle of subsidiarity, i.e., higher institutions should not intervene where lower ones can address a task. Likewise, such programs should not foster a “culture of dependency.”

This was one of the criticisms I had of Thomas Massaro’s United States Welfare Policy: A Catholic Response. Like Badger, Massaro seemed to have an underlying view that policy limits on welfare eligibility were inconsistent with the dignity of the recipient. In some instances, he was right, e.g., when welfare policy encouraged abortion. But he also seemed to think that linking welfare to work somehow makes people think of welfare as a discretionary charity while suggesting that there was something “wrong” with the recipient for collecting the dole.

I have no doubt that some might characterize welfare that way; I do not. At the same time, as I pointed out in my response to Badger’s “political” argument, participation in some government benefits are positive, e.g., society benefits when people go to school. Other benefits are negative and prophylactic, e.g., society should provide a safety net for those who need it, but society likewise has an interest in springing people from the safety net when it can, a process that sometimes requires a stick (or at least a burr) as well as a carrot. So, conditioning public welfare benefits on certain behavioral expectations both positive (engage in job search) and negative (avoid drugs) or on certain limits (no using welfare money for cookies or lingerie) is no violation of the dignity of the poor.

Do those restrictions have to be set out in law? The answer seems bound up with the role of the state as social welfare provider. In an earlier day, when the poor were far more dependent on private social charity, it was likely that providers frequently employed their own discretion to cut off cases that appeared not to be making the steps towards self-sufficiency of which they seemed capable. In a society that increasingly pushes private charity out of the public square (or constrains it if it takes public money), we should not want to leave such discretion to government bureaucrats, but instead spell out our expectations in a manner clear to all.

There are instances when we need to stand up for the rights of public welfare recipients against real abuse, e.g., when policies encourage abortion by making bringing your pregnancy to term a disqualifying criterion for assistance. But the moral voice to stand up for those needing public support is grossly weakened when expended decrying limits on “surf and turf.” The moral of “Crying Wolf” is that it’s counter-productive. Even if the media ridicules them, there seems to be strong popular support for limits on welfare benefits use. One wishes the poor’s self-proclaimed “advocates” learned how to draw distinctions.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes” was painted by Jacob de Backer (1555-1585).


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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