In the wake of the Great Recession, America's lawmakers have come up with some creative ways to demean poor people looking for a little help from government programs. Tennessee, for example, makes people applying for government money piss in a cup, and 12 more states are currently considering similar drug-testing programs. But Kansas has now outdone all this, passing a law that says people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families there can't even be trusted to withdraw more than $25 from an ATM at a time.
The bill was touted by Republicans as one that would help Kansans escape the cycle of poverty by requiring that they work 20 hours a week or go through job training to receive benefits. However, the new restrictions also keep welfare recipients from spending their money on lingerie, alcohol or concert tickets—basically the things that make life worth living.
"By signing this bill into law, Gov. Brownback has added to the burden that the poorest Kansans already carry," Shannon Cotsoradis, president of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children told the Kansas City Star. "It's always been hard to be poor in Kansas. Now, it's going to be a lot harder."
Since coming into office in 2011, the state's ultraconservative Republican governor Sam Brownback has been busy turning Kansas into a real-life Galt's Gulch in the middle of American heartland. In 2012, he appeared on MSNBC'sMorning Joe to talk about the largest package of tax cuts in his state's history. "We'll see how it works," he said. "We'll have a real live experiment." That experiment has made so much of a mess of Kansas's finances that Standard and Poor's Ratings downgraded the state's credit score, predicting the state would face a deficit in 2015.
Brownback's radical experiment is extending far beyond fiscal policies ---- he's creating a Tea Party utopia one piece of legislation at a time. "Every time poor economic numbers come out, some new social attack occurs," Marcus Baltzell of the Kansas National Education Association told me. "Gays, abortions and guns. Their strategy is to get people's attention off the fact that they're closing schools or doubling class sizes by saying 'look over here' at some inflammatory issue."
These inflammatory social policies have quickly turned Kansas into the reddest state in the union. In February, the governor signed an executive order allowing the state to discriminate against its workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. "What we want Kansas to be is the best place in America to do two things: Raise a family, grow a small business," he told Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in a March radio interview.
Earlier this month, on April 2, Brownback signed a bill that eliminates the permit requirement for concealed weapons. Five days later, he signed a law outlawing so-called "dismemberment abortions," which refers to the popular second-trimester procedure in which a doctor dilates the patient's cervix and removes the fetus with forceps. This procedure accounted for 9 percent of all abortions performed in the state last year, according to Elise Higgins, Kansas Manager of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
The law, which goes into effect in July, makes Kansas one of the most restrictive states in the country in terms of women's health. "Before 2011, Kansas was not a laughing stock on social issues," Higgins told me. "Now we're replacing the knowledge of a doctor with the will of a national interest group."
There's still a bill currently making its way through the state Senate that would effectively ban sex education, and that, if passed, could potentially scare teachers from introducing Shakespeare and classical art into classrooms. A second bill that's in House could potentially make Kansas an "opt-in" state for sex-ed, which means it would make zero instruction the default.
All of this amounts to what Baltzell the educator calls a distraction from other troubling developments. As Brownback prepares to release his new fiscal plan in the upcoming weeks, educators fear that he might be about to dip into the school system, which accounts for about half of the state's total budget.
"I like to explain it like it's the Wizard of Oz," Baltzell says. "The strategy is to keep people from paying attention to what's happening with the man behind the curtain."
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