A number of bills targeting safety net assistance to Oklahoma’s poorest families were filed this session. Some are straightforward measures to limit or deny assistance by modifying eligibility, but many seem likely to foster suspicion about applicants and recipients of specific public benefit programs. Debates over how best to use the state’s limited resources are always welcome, but debates that air popular yet faulty assumptions about low income Oklahomans can do far more harm than good.
TANF (often called welfare) and SNAP (formerly food stamps) are cash benefit programs that primarily serve children, seniors, people with disabilities and low-income single parents. They offer eligible Oklahomans, caught in turbulent life situations and struggling to afford basic needs, a safety net to catch them if they fall. Unfortunately, regardless of their intent, many of these bills perpetuate inaccurate and mean-spirited myths and stereotypes about the poor while doing significant damage to critical safety net programs. (Unemployment benefits, a cornerstone of the state’s safety net, is a hot topic this legislative session but will be covered in a subsequent post due to space limitations.)
HB 1909 forgoes a federal waiver that extends the time limit on benefits to able bodied adults without dependents in areas with high unemployment Job seekers in some parts of the state still face stubbornly high unemployment rates and the prospects for living wage employment remain bleak, i.e. in communities of color and many counties in Eastern Oklahoma the unemployment rate is twice as high as the state average.
HB 2014 disqualifies anyone convicted of a drug felony from eligibility for SNAP The implication here is not only that low income people are more likely to use and sell drugs than people who earn more, but also that because of their addiction they don’t ‘deserve’ assistance. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: substance abuse and addiction is a disease. Can you imagine a bill that barred diabetics or cancer survivors from applying for assistance?
Working people with addictions or criminal convictions must overcome significant obstacles to secure quality employment. When they fall back on the safety net in disproportionate numbers, it points to their disease and/or their precarious economic situation, not inherent degeneracy. Barring them from the social safety net is like barring people who are illiterate from literacy programs. It’s illogical, it’s costly, and children bear the brunt, as we’ve elaborated in a previous post.
SB 887 Bars food stamp recipients from knowingly permitting anyone else to use their benefit card; imposes prison time and fines There are legitimate reasons why food stamp recipients might have someone else – a close friend, older child, caregiver – pick up groceries. Routine household errands are a bigger burden for single working parents and folks with limited mobility. It’s not uncommon in any family for an aunt or a teenage child to occasionally pitch in and help out with the shopping. Yet SB 887 bill assigns food stamp recipients with fraudulent motives for doing so, even when an innocent motive is much more likely.
HB 2017 Imposes a savings limit known as an ‘asset test’ on food stamp applicants and recipients HB 2017 makes anyone who accumulates $5,000 in savings ineligible for food stamps. It doesn’t sound so bad, right? If you have that much money in the bank, why should taxpayers subsidzie your groceries? The answer is simple. Low-wage earners with families will never achieve independence from public assistance if they’re not allowed to save for emergencies, or necessary household items like appliances or cars. A household’s income should determine eligibility for public assistance, not their savings:
Asset limits often set a maximum threshold for saving that is far below the amount needed to cope with a medical emergency, car breakdown or other urgent and unanticipated expense. Beyond discouraging saving in the first place, asset tests can compel families to deplete existing savings before accessing help. Spending down savings to be eligible for temporary benefits can make financial stability more elusive in the long run, ultimately resulting in increased reliance on public assistance.
HB 1908 Takes money from TANF to fund a public service campaign promoting marriage As a standalone bill (perhaps one that galvanized faith groups and raised private funds), a public service campaign promoting marriage would reflect an admirable commitment to family values. But a bill that does so by taking funds away from an anti-poverty program for single parents and their children is an entirely different can of worms. No radio spot or billboard promoting marriage can help a single parent pay the bills, land a better job, or fall in love with a good partner and co-parent. Shrinking an already paltry benefit (just $206 a month on average) to finance an endeavor that many single parents will internalize as patronizing is not the task of any right-sized government.
SB 667 Prohibits public benefit recipients from accessing electronic cards where liquor is sold, gambling machines are installed, or adult entertainment is offered This bill does nothing to prevent the use of public dollars at nefarious establishments. It simply prevents electronic debits and/or withdrawals from onsite ATMs. What the bill would do is codify stereotypes: poor parents aren’t just lazy, they’re degenerate, and they’re spending money they desperately need to take care of their children on booze-soaked benders at casinos and strip clubs.
Perhaps most troubling about the slate of bills above is how quickly they are moving through the legislative process. With the exception of SB 673, all of them have been approved by one or more committees in their respective chambers. Two of them (HB 1908 and HB 1909) are being carried by the Speaker of the House, TW Shannon and leadership bills are more likely than not to continue to receive hearings and elicit supporters. We urge legislators to take their time and carefully consider both the real and symbolic implications of these bills and hope that conscience and a sense of civic duty ultimately guide their choices.