Kansas set to prevent poor from using aid for swimming pools, psychics

? Kansas is close to telling poor families by law that they can’t use cash assistance from the state to visit swimming pools, get tattoos or consult with psychics among a list of other things, leading critics to focus on whether tighter rules for social services will make life more unpleasant for the needy.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies are emphasizing how they believe a social services bill approved by lawmakers this week helps move people from state assistance into decent jobs.

The bill puts policies imposed by Brownback’s administration into state law, so they’ll be harder to undo later. A key policy requires able-bodied adults receiving temporary cash assistance to work, be looking for a job, or to enroll in job training.

But lawmakers added rules, too. One limits ATM withdrawals with assistance cards to $25 a day, to make it harder for benefits to be converted to cash and used for non-essential items.

The list of banned uses would not only include alcohol, tobacco, gambling and sexually oriented materials, but other entertainment, including movie theaters and swimming pools. Cash assistance couldn’t be used in nail salons or spas, on cruise ships or at tattoo or body-piercing parlors. Also out: Any “psychic or fortune telling business.”

“I just think we are simply saying to people, ‘If you are asking for assistance in this state, you’re sort of less than other people and we’re going to tell you how and where to spend your money,'” Rep. Carolyn Bridges, a Wichita Democrat, said during the House’s debate.

The measure had broad support among Republicans, who control both chambers by large majorities. The House passed it on an 87-35 vote Thursday, a day after the Senate approved it, 30-10.

Brownback is expected to sign it, though spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said he will review the measure carefully, including the additions from legislators. If he does, it will take effect July 1.

“The governor believes strongly that employment is the most effective path out of poverty and he is supportive of work requirements that help people become self-sufficient,” she said in a statement Friday.

The limit on ATM withdrawals is designed to prevent fraud or improper use of cash benefits, so that the money is spent on essentials.

“This is serious, good policy for the state of Kansas,” said Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Palco Republican. “There’s nothing better to get these people back on their feet than getting them a job and getting them back to work.”

The Department for Children and Families argues that the policies to be enshrined in state law are moving poor families to self-sufficiency.

The department says the number of food stamp recipients has dropped 11 percent over the past two years, to a monthly average of about 280,000. The number of people receiving temporary cash assistance has dropped by 60 percent since June 2011, to a monthly average of about 15,500.

But the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children argues that Brownback’s policies limit access to services, particularly cash assistance, because there hasn’t been an attendant drop in child poverty rates.

Democratic lawmakers also criticized the proposed rules limiting how cash assistance could be spent. Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, noted that in barring the use of cash assistance for visits to swimming pools, the state could shut off an option for exercise, for better health.

Critics said the limit on ATM withdrawals would hinder families wanting to pay a utility bill or buy clothes for their children, possibly forcing them to make trips to cash machines over multiple days.

“These are families already experiencing a level of chaos,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children. “We’re really adding to their burdens.”