You Should Damn Well Be Able to Buy Lingerie with Welfare

Poor people live in the same universe as us. They fuck, unwind with drinks, and like a decent meal sometimes. We don't get to mandate that they never enjoy their lives.

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lagged On User

Earlier this week, a news report in Louisiana broke a hard-hitting story to its viewers: A lingerie store in Gonzales, Louisiana called Kiss My Lingerie takes Electronic Benefits Transfer as payment. EBT is a card that lets a holder transfer benefits directly to a retailer. The benefits generally come from the food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, a.k.a. welfare. 

According to the news report, a lady who works near Kiss My Lingerie saw business booming at the adult store. She nosed around and saw the EBT insignia on the doorway. The EBT logo scandalized her, so she called Channel 9 News, whose reporter later interviewed her. She couldn't stop harping on the fact that edible underwear is not, in her mind, an appropriate use of taxpayer money. When the segment aired, the newscaster looked into the camera and imperiously told viewers, “While some don't think the benefits should be used on lingerie, our Tyana Williams is told there's not a thing illegal about it.”

This is a fringe example. When I asked Kaaryn Gustafson, law professor at University of Connecticut and author of Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty, she seemed like she thought I was trolling her. She pointed out that you can't use your food stamp benefits for something like this. “SNAP benefits cannot be used for lingerie. The checkout scanners prevent the cards from making the payment,” she told me in an email.

During the 2012 election, conservatives used an old Reagan-era rhetorical device about Welfare Queens. The welfare queen from the Reagan days, Linda Taylor, was a compulsive liar and possibly even a murderer, and she was held up as an example of the welfare fraud that was supposedly rampant back then. Authors, including Kaaryn, have written extensively on why that whole thing was bullshit.

According to today's conservative news, welfare abuse seems to be “any use of public programs to do anything a conservative TV viewer doesn't like,” as exemplified by Eric Bolling's repeated reports to his viewers about people buying delicious seafood with their benefits, as seen here on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show editing crew cut together a great reel of ridiculous conservative anchors harping on food stamp users buying luxury shit. Jon Stewart provided decent commentary until he detoured into a lame joke about being old. (Hey, Jon. Ira Glass is four years older than you, and he doesn't constantly lean on a tired shtick about his aching back. Get the fuck over it.)

But there's still a problem with this point-of-view: the tacit concession that any of this abuse is abuse at all. Buying lobsters is a legitimate use of welfare and so is buying fetish gear.

Plenty of people with families need lingerie for work. (I'm referring to strippers and fetish models. Prostitution is a good way to feed your kids, but it's illegal, so I won't count it.)

The nature of someone's employment is none of your business anyway. Conservatives can disapprove, but no one ever said you get to approve of everything that happens with your tax money. That part is tough titty for you. I feel Bolling's pain in a way, but on the other hand, I'm sure he's glad my tax money gets spent murdering Yemenis at their weddings with drone attacks. Meanwhile, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that a little bit of Bolling's tax money buys plus-sized negligees for trans-women. Democracy's a bitch sometimes.

Secondly, what kind of monkish existence do you expect people to live on if they're on welfare? The stated objectives of the program are as follows:

Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes

Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage

Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies

Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families

Now we all may have issues with different parts of that list, but nowhere does it say, “We also insist that our poor live on Oliver Twist-style gruel, make clothes out of trash bags, and get by on the absolute bare minimum of everything.”

Poor people live in the same universe as us. They unwind with drinks, fuck, and like a decent meal sometimes. Sure they shouldn't splurge on private jets or bottle service, but we don't get to mandate that they never enjoy their lives.

The poor are also free moral agents. They get to decide their own budgets. Maybe a mother's tips go toward feeding her kids, and some of her welfare money goes to paying bills. “Many poor people live in neighborhoods that don't have banks,” Kaaryn told me. "A lot of poor people, many of whom don't have cars, have difficulty both buying groceries and cashing the benefits they receive through their EBT cards."

We can't police the use of these cards, and we shouldn't get to. The poor aren't children, nor are they parolees. They're people who get by on less money than most of us. If sometimes they want to look sexy, let them. Even when you involve lingerie, sex is cheaper than a night at the movies. And besides, it's none of your fucking business. 

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