Should Welfare Be Used to Modify Bad Behavior?

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It’s a sad fact that part of our addicted population is on welfare or will be driven to public assistance as a result of their addiction. And recent movements to restrict payments to those on assistance based on lifestyle choices adds a further incentive to get clean, or a disincentive, depending on who you talk to.

In February, the federal government added restrictions across the board – cash meant for assistance can’t be used in a casino, a strip club or in a liquor store. States are required to match this federal mandate by 2014, but some aren’t waiting. Many states have already passed parallel legislation that is even more restrictive. And on the surface, that sounds fine. The public isn’t interested in funding what we generally think of as bad or harmful behavior.

The logic goes something like this:

If I am going to pay for your sustenance, I should have the right to regulate what you spend the money on. It’s an attractive idea and lawmakers have used it to regulate welfare spending on everything from alcohol to tattoos.

Criminalizing legal behavior

The opposite case is hard to make in an environment of limited funding and a sense that public largesse is money wasted. Opponents point out that restrictions in freedom are neither necessary nor productive and the loss of freedom is an attack on human dignity and the basic right to run your own affairs.

They say it does no good, since those who are addicted (to gambling, or alcohol, or tobacco or a host of other ills) will not stop because they are breaking the rules. They argue that if you want to treat these problems, treat them directly. Criminalizing legal behaviors only leads to punishing those who can least afford to lose what little they have, and families suffer as a result.

According to recent reporting on the issue:
“In Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering banning card purchases of tattoos, pornography and guns. The proposal would also prohibit spending at nail salons, jewelry stores and casinos. Welfare recipients in the state are already barred from using their cards to buy lottery tickets, tobacco and alcohol.”

What both sides of the argument do agree on is that businesses who participate in banned transactions should pay the price. They all label this practice outright fraud and theft.

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