WASHINGTON -- The nation's main welfare program would be funded for the next nine months under a bill passed Thursday by the House, which also banned recipients from accessing their benefits in strip clubs, liquor stores and casinos.
A voice vote by the House approved the measure. The welfare provision is included in legislation to extend a payroll tax cut, but the separate bill was passed in case it's eliminated from the tax bill. Without the legislation, the welfare program would halt at midnight Dec. 31.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
The chief House sponsor, Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, said that welfare caseloads have fallen by 56 percent since welfare reform was enacted in 1996. The figures go through June.
Paulsen said the restrictions applying to casinos, strip clubs and liquor stores were prompted by several news stories on misuse of welfare money. He said some states already have closed what is called the "strip club loophole," but the bill insists that all states take steps to end this access.
Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said she opposed the provision. "Authors of this bill have brought it up so that they could just have another kick at poor people," Moore said. "The bill sort of suggests that people who are poor are of very low moral character and they can't be trusted."
Many states issue welfare recipients an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or EBT, with cash benefits. The systems have simplified the distribution of financial assistance, but they also provide a way of tracking where the benefits are withdrawn.
Paulsen said the welfare program that now exists "is designed to promote and support work. Unfortunately, it is one of the only anti-poverty programs that actually does so, focusing on helping people move from government checks to paychecks."
The latest census data shows a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.
Many formerly middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold – roughly $45,000 for a family of four – because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job.