Stop picking on the poor

MY 14-year-old daughter asked me recently if we are poor.

"Your dad and I aren't poor, but you are because we have all the money," I jokingly responded.

It was an intentionally light moment during a heavy conversation about poverty in America. I seized the opportunity - as rare as it comes with a teenager - to elicit her thoughts on poverty and, in particular, on a new law in Kansas that prevents families that receive government aid from using the money to go to the movies or a swimming pool. I told her about a bill in Missouri that would prevent poor folks from buying cookies and chips, among other items.

My daughter couldn't understand why they couldn't buy cookies. She's expressed concern about disparaging remarks she's heard about the poor. She asked, "Why do people hate the poor?"

I told her I think it's more that people don't understand poverty. They cling to anecdotes and misconceptions suggesting that poor people don't want to work and are more inclined to take advantage of benefit programs. So food purchases have to be micromanaged.

It was this type of intrusiveness that led my grandmother to refuse welfare benefits when she decided to take in and raise my two sisters, two brothers and me. I was 4 at the time.

Big Mama would have used the supplemental money wisely, as she did her own low-wage income working full time as a nursing assistant in a hospital. But she decided that the sometimes-humiliating oversight in accepting welfare was too big a price to pay.

She made do because she was a great money-manager, but it was hard. I often would cry when she couldn't buy us certain things. But looking at how we treat the poor, especially those who get public assistance, I understand her decision.

During a recent online discussion, many readers weighed in on the Kansas and Missouri legislation. Here are some comments in favor of the restrictions:

* "Why is it a problem to say that it's OK to buy vegetables, rice, beans, meat and milk, but not chips, candy, cookies, etc., with the benefits? If anyone wants those items, they are welcome to buy them, but not with the particular food-need benefit."

* "I do find it personally offensive if recipients spend entitlements on frivolous items."

* "The rules would operate as an incentive to healthful eating."

Others see the restrictions as a double standard.

* "Do people think that only the well-off ever need a treat to make them feel halfway alive? There are so many emotional and practical challenges to being poor. When I think of all the tax money we are not collecting from the wealthy . . . it drives me nuts. If my tax dollars are going to a poor person getting a little pleasure from a chocolate cupcake or a steak, I'm satisfied."

* "I am sick of folks who think that it is OK to demand that the poor do this or don't do that because they get certain governmental benefits. How about we demand that the rich take classes in charity and social problems in order to get the huge tax that we give them? The poor get a very small portion of the money that the government gives to its citizens. They just get it more openly. He who is without dependence on any governmental assistance (tax breaks or deductions) should cast the first insult."

Loved this comment from a reader: "I would be very curious though to know exactly how many people use their SNAP benefits for lobster and steak. I feel like a lot of people are deciding that the plural of 'anecdote' is 'data.' "

It would be fiscally irresponsible not to make sure public benefits are wisely spent, but if we are going to place restrictions on the poor, let's be fair and require the same standards and scrutiny for everyone who gets financial help from the government.

In fiscal year 2014, tax expenditures - government subsidies given by way of exemptions, deductions, and credits - reduced federal income tax revenue by more than $1.1 trillion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research organization.

So if people take the mortgage-interest deduction, shouldn't they have to show they can afford the home and save for retirement? If it's proved that you can't, no deduction for you.

After all, if you buy too much house that consumes too much of your income, you'll have trouble saving enough to help take care of yourself in old age. And isn't that a poor choice that shouldn't be subsidized?