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Marijuana Welfare

An ATM is positioned inside a marijuana store, in Boulder, Colo., Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. Colorado state lawmakers this year are poised to pass a law clarifying that public benefit cards can’t be used at pot dispensary ATMs. A bill facing its first hearing next week in the state Senate would add marijuana businesses and strip clubs to the list of Colorado businesses where public benefits cards – called EBTs – can’t be used to withdraw cash. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Colorado is stuck between a hookah and a hard place on preventing welfare recipients from using their EBTs to buy legalized weed:

Despite mounting evidence that “welfare for weed” is more than an urban myth, Democratic legislators are balking at a bill that would add marijuana dispensaries and strip clubs to the list of places, along with casinos and liquor stores, where debit-style benefits cards cannot be used to withdraw cash from automatic teller machines, or ATMs.

Democrats killed a similar bill last year, but now the stakes are higher. States had two years to align their statutes with a 2012 federal law banning the use of electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards at gambling and adult-entertainment venues.

As of this year, states that fail to take action risk having their federal grants under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program reduced by 5 percent.

While pot shops aren’t on the federal list, Colorado officials are concerned that failing to disable ATMs at marijuana dispensaries for EBT cards would violate the spirit of the law and provoke the ire of the Justice Department, which is keeping the legalized pot industry in states like Colorado and Washington on a short leash.

Democrats don’t want to offend the tender sensibilities of their most devoted voters — people on the dole. Republicans don’t want local businesses at the tender mercies of Washington’s jackbooted thugs.

But is removing ATM machines from poor neighborhoods — where pot stores are mostly located — the answer? Before we get to that, maybe we need to look at the real problem, which in this case is not legalized marijuana.

Busybodies of the left and right don’t want welfare recipients to spend their benefits on the “wrong” things, whether it’s cigarets (nasty!), strippers (sexist!), or pot (immoral!). And I can’t say that I blame them. I don’t mind if somebody goes to a strip club on their own dime, but I draw the line at paying for someone else’s lap dance when I don’t even get to pick out the song.

The “solution” to date is to remove ATMs from convenient locations, or to ban gentlemen’s clubs from taking EBT cards, etc. None of these solutions work very well, however. A pothead can walk a little further to the ATM. A shady individual might offer to sell someone $25 worth of booze in exchange for $50 of something more legit. Money, to paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm, finds a way. The best then that we can hope for is to make things a little more difficult for welfare recipients to spend their benefits on the things they really want, while making it a little more expensive for taxpayers to foot the bill for hungry children. Cash benefits also help to line the pockets of those shady individuals eager to facilitate publicly-financed vice.

Is there a way then to help the needy without enriching strippers, pot dealers, liquor stores, and under-the-table facilitators?

Yes there is.

Eliminate cash benefits. Period.

If we must have a federal-level welfare program to feed and clothe the hungry, the worst way to do it is by giving away free cash money.

How about this instead.

Washington could block-grant the money to states, based on population size and poverty rate. The states (or localities) in turn would operate Welfare Stores, where the needy could buy food and clothes at heavily subsidized prices. Welfare benefits would be paid out with little more than pocket change, which would be exchanged at local Welfare Stores for the goods which our neediest really need.

The food would be simple, hearty, wholesome — and unprepared. No bags of Cheetos, no candy bars, no liquor. Just milk, ground beef, whole chickens, eggs, butter, peanut butter, jelly, bread, flour, fresh fruits & veggies, and any other staples I’ve left out. The clothes would be basic, too. No designer labels, no high fashion. Just decent clothes, made to last.

Everything anybody needed to feed and clothe themselves and their kids, and nothing else, at prices so low you couldn’t even tip a Tuesday afternoon-shift stripper for the same amount of cash it would take to fill your grocery cart with a week’s worth of staples.

While we’re still conducting this thought experiment, let’s take it a step further. Let’s eliminate welfare as a program, and open these stores up to all Americans. You wouldn’t shop there unless you needed to, due to the stigma of going to the Welfare Store. But the needy wouldn’t have to jump through Big Government’s hoops to get the help they need, either. Think of Welfare Stores as the retail equivalent of the negative income tax.

We’d even reduce the criminal element in our neediest areas, because nobody is going to rob a Welfare Store of a hundred bags of flour (with nearly zero black market value) and the $12 in the register.

And if America’s neediest still want pot, booze, and strippers? They’ll have to get that money the old-fashioned way — they’ll have to earn it.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple images.)