Perhaps Welfare Shouldn’t Go to Dead People. Or to Pay for Marijuana, Tattoos, and Piercings.
Religion & Liberty Online

Perhaps Welfare Shouldn’t Go to Dead People. Or to Pay for Marijuana, Tattoos, and Piercings.

tattoo-momIf you’re on welfare in New Hampshire you might want to rush out and get that new tattoo and tongue piercing, and load up on cigars and weed. In 60 days you’ll no longer be able to use your welfare payment cards on marijuana, cigars, piercings, or tattoos:

Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a law that bans welfare “electronic benefit transfer” cards from being used on marijuana, among other vices.

More than 12,000 New Hampshire households receive benefits on EBT cards that essentially work as debit cards. The new law prohibits them from being used at marijuana dispensaries, cigar and smoke shops and tattoo and body piercing shops.

“We must always work to protect taxpayer dollars against public assistance fraud or abuse while also ensuring that those who need and qualify for financial support can purchase basic essential items,” Hassan said in a news release.

The cards have previously been banned by state and federal law from being used at liquor stores, gambling establishments and “adult entertainment venues.”

If you think that sounds harsh, in Illinois they are even prohibiting dead people from collecting welfare. As Mary Katharine Ham notes, “Even food stamps will no longer flow to those who until recently needed daily sustenance.”

Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute explains the new, must-be-living policy:

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 3311 on July 21, requiring the Department of Human Services to conduct a monthly crosscheck of its aid recipients with the death records kept by the Department of Public Health.

If the crosscheck yields a death record, the department will immediately cancel all public aid benefits to the recipient. To hedge against the hardship of a head of household passing away and a family being left without a safety net, the benefits will continue to flow if individuals in the “assistance unit” in question rely on the payments. The unit includes spouses and children.

Welfare dollars for the deceased have long been an object of scrutiny in Illinois. Millions have been spent on dead residents in the last few years.

During the 1976 campaign Ronald Reagan would tell a story that exemplified the problem of welfare fraud:

“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the crowd gasped.

For decades, Reagan was denounced for perpetuating the “myth of the welfare queen.” But it wasn’t a myth. Reagan was talking about Linda Taylor, a woman so audacious she drove her Cadillac to the public aid office to pick up her welfare check. (Slate has a great article on Taylor. Welfare fraud was the least of her crimes.)

You could argue that fraud is the exception the rule. Most people on public aid aren’t using their welfare money to buy dope and get butterfly tattoos on their ankles, much less buying diamonds and furs like the eponymous welfare queen Taylor. That is almost certainly true—and it’s the primary reason to crack down on welfare fraud.

Most Americans agree that we need some sort of social safety net for those truly in need (even if they don’t always agree on how much the government should be involved). But the abuse of the system by a small percentage of cheats has an outsized effect on the perception of the welfare system as a whole. When it comes to demographics, Americans are terrible at estimating percentages. We believe that 1 in 4 girls between the ages of 15-19 give birth each year (the actual percentage is 3 percent) and that 15 percent of Americans are Muslim (the actual percentage is 1 percent). So when we hear about individual cases of welfare fraud we assume the number of people who are exploiting the system is much, much higher than it is in reality.

By proactively limiting the opportunities for abuse, we can help to ensure that the public does not lose confidence in the fairness of the system and ensures the stigma is attached to the right people—criminals. “There is no disgrace being on welfare,” said New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien in 2012. “There is a disgrace in engaging in welfare fraud.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).