This week the House of Representatives will be devoting its time to voting on a bill that would ban any government aid distributed through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from being used at strip clubs, casinos, and liquor stores. It will likely pass.
This begs the question: With unemployment at 8.5 percent and more than one in three Americans struggling to get by on low incomes, do conservatives really believe that taxpayer dollars used for strip clubs, liquor stores, or casinos is a pressing national crisis? For most House conservatives, the answer is probably no. Do they see the political value of forcing such a vote in an election year? You bet!
Putting politics above policy in this crass way is unfortunate and cynical. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program has experienced benefit cuts of more than 20 percent, after adjusting for inflation, even as the Great Recession and the slow economic recovery have caused elevated levels of unemployment and poverty. Many low-income workers on TANF are unable to access the child care they need to make work possible and ultimately end up spending nearly half their income on care for their children. Low-wage workers are constantly facing the threat of a layoff because more than 80 percent lack access to a single paid sick day to take care of themselves, a sick kid, or an elderly relative.
And the big vote on TANF is about strip clubs?
This vote represents yet another instance in the creeping trend of conservatives to demonize the poor—and then threaten anyone who votes against the legislation with supporting “welfare spending” for strip club admissions. The tactic enables conservatives to imply that tough economic circumstances somehow make poor people delinquent and criminally inclined. Take, for example, the House proposal to stigmatize the unemployed by mandating drug testing for unemployment insurance applicants, even though most states already have policies in place to deny these benefits to anyone who is fired for using drugs on the job. Never mind that people on assistance have been found to test positive for drug use at no higher rate than the average population.
What’s more, these policies will cost taxpayers a lot of money. Numerous studies show that it doesn’t pay for the federal or state governments to drug test people, and in one instance a congressional committee estimated it cost $77,000 to catch one drug user because the positive test rate was only 0.5 percent. Using this number as an example, with unemployment benefits averaging only $300 a week, the federal government could provide 10 jobless workers with six months of benefits for the cost of possibly catching one drug user. So much for conservatives’ concerns about wasting taxpayer money.
Indeed, at the heart of these proposals is not a concerted effort to improve program integrity and efficiency or to save taxpayer dollars. TANF, like other government programs, is already subjected to federal and state audits. If program integrity were the goal, then conservatives would also be calling for votes forbidding corporations that receive taxpayer subsidies and bailouts from having big conferences in Las Vegas, where there is no shortage of casinos, strip clubs, and liquor stores. They would be up in arms about the possibility of wasting taxpayer dollars on drug testing when studies show that the costs far outweigh the benefits.
Rather, these proposals are crass political tactics to divide our nation by peddling the notion that the poor are somehow different from everyone else. They imply that because someone needs unemployment benefits, they must have done something wrong to be laid off. Or that because someone needs temporary welfare benefits, they will spend money on liquor, not their children.
We should expose these tactics for what they are by highlighting what’s really going on in America today among the poor and middle class. A recent study revealed that half of Americans are one crisis—one lost job, one illness, one broken-down car—away from poverty. Nor are the poor a stagnant group of people. Between 2004 and 2007, for example, only 2.2 percent of the U.S. population was under the poverty line for the full four years, while approximately one-third of the population fell into poverty for at least two months. The line between the middle class and the poor is not as impenetrable as some might like to think.
Rather than focusing valuable congressional floor time to debating TANF benefits at strip clubs, the House leadership should dedicate more time to putting Americans back to work and rebuilding our middle class. Measures such as these are an insult to the millions of unemployed Americans who want nothing more than to get a job or who seek temporary assistance to help their families get back on their feet at times of crisis.
Melissa Boteach is the manager of the Half in Ten project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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Senior Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity Program