New GOP bill looks to place bigger restrictions on aid for low-income Americans

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The Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act would prohibit welfare benefits from being accessed in any store where pot is sold.

A new bill authored by two House Republicans could make it harder for lower-income Americans to access their welfare benefits.

Its sponsor says the law is needed to stop people from using their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds on cannabis, though there isn't evidence to support that this happens often.

South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice introduced the Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act on Monday, with Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski acting as his principal co-sponsor. If enacted, the bill would "prohibit assistance provided under the program of block grants to States for temporary assistance for needy families from being accessed through the use of an electronic benefit transfer card at any store that offers marijuana for sale."

"Congressman Rice believes it would be a misuse of taxpayer dollars to allow folks receiving welfare to use the funds for marijuana purchases. Those taxpayer funds should instead be used by families who require assistance meeting actual needs," a spokesperson for the South Carolina Republican said in an email.

"The cash benefits are already restricted at casinos, liquor stores, and strip clubs. This bill simply closes a loophole that will prevent people from exploiting the system as legal marijuana purchases continue to expand across the country," his spokesperson added.

This is not a new idea. In 2014, then-Rep. Dave Reichert got the House, under GOP control at the time, to pass a similar bill, but it never got a vote in the Senate.

Republican lawmakers have long sought to stigmatize and control the spending of lower-income Americans who receive government benefits.

That includes several GOP-controlled state governments, who have in recent years instituted mandatory drug screening requirements for welfare recipients. The screenings — premised on the false notion that the people with the lowest incomes were more likely to use drugs they could not afford — cost those states hundreds of thousands of dollars and yielded a very small number of positive tests for illegal drugs.

In 2016, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), a former welfare recipient herself, tried to level the playing field. She proposed a "Top 1% Accountability Act" to require drug tests for anyone claiming more than $150,000 in itemized tax deductions.

"Republicans continue to criminalize poverty and to put forward the narrative, the false narrative in fact, that people who are poor and reliant upon the social safety net are drug users," Moore said at the time. Her bill died in committee.

Erik Altieri, executive director for NORML, called Rice's new bill "a solution in search of a problem."

In an email on Tuesday, he wrote:

There is no evidence that would lead anyone to believe that individuals receiving their already limited assistance through EBT cards are using those funds to purchase cannabis products at legal marijuana dispensaries instead of the necessary items they and their families need for survival. This seems like yet another way for legislators who already want to see these programs cut or greatly reduced to attempt to stigmatize working-class Americans.

If passed, the legislation would prevent recipients from accessing their benefit funds at "any establishment that offers marihuana," starting in October 2022. It would do nothing to prevent them from withdrawing funds as at a cash machine across the street and then using them to buy cannabis products.

As more and more states pass laws permitting the recreational use and adult sales of cannabis, the number of stores selling it has increased significantly in recent years.

With Congress considering whether to lift the federal prohibition, an array of businesses, including convenience stores, are exploring the possibility of selling packaged cannabis products.

Should the Rice-Walorski bill become law, this could mean that many Americans who live in urban low-income areas and can only get their groceries at convenience stores could be unable to use their benefits in those locations — even to buy food.

According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, some states have put additional restrictions on electronic benefit cards for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families recipients. In California, it noted, no funds could be withdrawn at gun or ammunition stores or cannabis shops.

The proposed Preserving Welfare for Needs Not Weed Act would make that cannabis shop ban national but contains no federal restrictions on using those funds to buy semi-automatic weapons.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.