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Public Assistance is Reproductive Justice

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April 9, 2015

Photo by Flickr user "chrstphre"

Photo by Flickr user “chrstphre”

Recently, my home state of Kansas passed a law that places several restrictions on the usage of benefits received from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), commonly referred to as welfare. Among other things, the bill prohibits TANF benefits from being used at swimming pools, movie theaters, cruise ships, and tattoo parlors. Also, the bill limits ATM withdrawals from the TANF account to $25 per day.

On top of these new restrictions, Kansas also requires recipients of TANF benefits to be working or looking for work, and has instituted a drug testing policy for those who qualify.

And Kansas isn’t the only state to be fighting this “problem” of the luxury of being poor. Missouri lawmakers have been pushing for a bill greatly restricting what type of groceries can be bought with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps, eliminating such foods as seafood, steak, cookies, soda, and chips. And yes, some of those restrictions may fall in line with the program’s goals to promote healthy eating, but things like seafood and steak can clearly be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.

It’s easy to look at these laws and restrictions and see this as an economic issue. After all, drug testing welfare recipients costs far more in taxpayer dollars than it has been shown to save, and recipients are statistically no more likely than the general population to be using drugs in the first place. For TANF benefits, the maximum benefits allowed for a family of four are still less than $500 a month. On that sort of budget, it is unlikely that money is being spent on cruises, especially in Kansas.

The limit on withdrawal amounts not only doesn’t make sense because of the fact most ATMs only disperse cash in twenty dollar bills, but also because every withdrawal incurs a fee paid to the bank. And those people utilizing food stamp benefits hardly have the money left over to splurge on luxury foods unless they are very frugal at other times. Simply put, these are solutions in search of problems.

But what most people don’t talk about is how issues like food assistance, welfare, and other programs are related to reproductive justice. One of the best things about reproductive justice is that it is more of a lens through which we view the world than it is an individual issue. Because of that, we can use this lens to look at issues that don’t seem to be directly related at face value.

The common theme about all of these programs is that they are meant for and primarily used by families. And families are at the core of reproductive justice. The ability to provide for the needs of our families is what many of our issues are centered around. So, let’s take a look at each of these laws through our reproductive justice lens.

SNAP benefits are a great place to start. Food stamps exist because we believe people deserve to be able to feed themselves and their families. This should honestly be the least controversial part of our social safety net in America. Regardless of circumstance, we should all share the value that access to food is a human right.

The laws being proposed to restrict what type of food can be bought are disrespectful to the people who receive these benefits. Not only are some of the foods on the list part of a healthy diet, but even those foods that are not as healthy serve a purpose in people’s lives. Parents want to provide the best they can for their children. Sometimes this means buying a box of cookies to bring home for a treat. We should not be judging the choices people make with the small amount of money they have to take care of their family.

TANF benefits also play a large role in a person’s ability to take care of their family. These benefits are often used to pay for the other necessities in life. Buying diapers, clothing, medicine, and paying rent and utilites are some of most common uses of this benefit. For those struggling to make ends meet, this program can be a lifeline to keep them in their homes and have the items they need to take care of their family.

Drug testing recipients of this program is not only a bad investment, but also bad policy. We should look at who is really harmed if these benefits are taken away, and that is the children. Should a child be punished if their parent tests positive for drugs? Does that mean this child is no longer deserving of food to eat or a roof over their head? And even then, we should be working to try to help people struggling with drug abuse, not shame and dehumanize them.

The restrictions on where you can use TANF benefits also seem to be actively working to punish lower income families. Not allowing a trip to a movie theater or a swimming pool seem to have the intention of keeping lower income families and their children from living as normal parts of society. Going to the pool or the movies, even if only rarely, are important parts of a healthy childhood.

There is also the issue of the daily limit for cash withdrawals. For those without a checking account, those cash withdrawals are how they can pay for necessities and bills. Forcing them to make multiple trips to an ATM and incur unnecessary fees doesn’t seem like a good or a fair policy. It seems like punishment.

There are a lot of ways to help people of lower income better provide for their families. One of those ways is to improve the job market and make it easier for people to get back on their feet. But, unlike what some would tell you, that is not the only fix we should be working for. Having a strong social safety net with welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs is essential both for the short-term recipients trying to get back on their feet, and the long-term recipients who due to their circumstances, cannot provide fully for themselves or their family.

We talk about economic justice as reproductive justice frequently. Talking about how there is no access to abortion or contraceptives unless they are affordable is an important conversation. Discussing the wage gap and differences in hiring practices and opportunities for advancement is important.

But we need to be able to see all economic issues as issues that affect people’s reproductive choices. When to have children or if they are having children are issues that many young couples make based on their economic stability and financial standing. People having real freedom with their reproductive lives means that people need to have a certain level of guarantee that they will be able to take care of their families, even when circumstances are not ideal.

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