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Kansas Bans Using Welfare to Pay for Lingerie: Why That’s a Problem for Poor People

sexy bra

Kansas, that rectangular-shaped state smack dab in the middle of the continental United States, is making headlines this morning for passing several new rules regarding the spending of welfare benefits.

According to the Associated Press, Kansas’ State Legislature has enacted the most restrictive/prohibitive rules in the country for those receiving cash assistance. You can view the entire 25-page bill here, but I’d like to draw your attention to paragraph #14 on page 9, which I’ve copied and pasted below:



No TANF cash assistance shall be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting event tickets or tickets for other entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. No TANF cash assistance shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino,gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted. TANF cash assistance transactions for cash withdrawals from automated teller machines shall be limited to $25, per transaction and to one transaction per day. No TANF cash assistance shall be used for purchases at points of sale outside the state of Kansas.

In there among the ban on buying lottery tickets, lap dances, and body piercings with TANF benefits are two little words that could have a profound effect on someone’s ability to find a job, and, ultimately, stop using welfare (which, after all, is the goal of the program). Those two words? A ban on using benefits in lingerie shops.

Without doing a comprehensive unpacking of the myriad of concerns with this bill (welfare fraud is extremely low; punishing the poor is not particularly helpful; most welfare recipients are children), I’d like to focus on the lingerie ban in particular.

At the surface, I can certainly decipher the thought process behind including lingerie in the bill, though I obviously don’t agree with it. Lingerie is about sex, right? And we don’t want to use government benefits to subsidize people’s sex lives, right? So let’s ban all lingerie purchases of any kind using TANF. Problem solved! However, that logic is short-sighted, and several other areas of the bill reveal why:

TANF mandatory work program applicants and recipients shall participate in work components that lead to competitive, integrated employment. Components are defined by the federal government as being either primary or secondary. In order to meet federal work participation requirements, households need to meet at least 30 hours of participation per week, at least 20 hours of which need to be primary…

Single parent families with a child under age six meet the federal participation requirement if the parent is engaged in work or work activities for at least 20 hours per week in a primary work component.

in determining and maintaining eligibility for non-TANF childcare, requiring that all included adults shall be employed a minimum of 20 hours per week or more as defined by the secretary…

The time on food assistance for able-bodied adults aged 18 through 49 without dependents in the household shall be limited to three months in a 36-month period if such adults are not meeting the requirements imposed by the U.S. department of agriculture that they must work for at least 20 hours per week or participate in a federally approved work program or its equivalent…

In order to receive benefits, whether of cash, childcare, or food, welfare recipients must work a minimum of 20 hours per week (or be looking for work or be involved in job training). Now, it’s been a minute since I’ve been employed by someone else, but if I recall correctly, wearing a bra if you have breasts is pretty much seen as a social requirement.

Lingerie is a weird part of fashion because there are all these unstated rules that you just understand if you grow up around them, but that are completely opaque and unknowable if you don’t (this is what we usually shorthand to “culture”). And let me be clear, I am not in the “every woman should wear a bra all the time” camp. I firmly believe the choice of wearing or not wearing a bra should always be up to the individual person.

However, I’m also very familiar with the stigma that surrounds going braless or wearing what’s perceived as an inappropriate or poorly-fitting bra. Even within the lingerie community which, ostensibly, should know better, there’s been a distressing amount of mocking people who are in the “wrong size.”

Because of our culture’s stance on bra wearing, many people have no idea what breasts look like without some kind of external structure, frame, or support. Yet many of these same people would tell you it’s inappropriate, sloppy, unprofessional, overtly sexual, or just “looks wrong” for certain folks to walk around braless.

So tell me, if someone who is already in dire financial straits is unable to use their benefits to buy the appropriate professional undergarments, how are they supposed to get a job?

I imagine my more internet-savvy readers will say to use one of the many braswap or bra buying communities online, or even to shop from eBay where a wide selection of bras can be found cheaply.

However, internet access is still a luxury for many of the poor, and while there are plans to offer subsidized internet to lower income communities, those plans are still very much in the early stages. And honestly, many people still aren’t comfortable buying lingerie online, and that’s okay.

So what about thrift stores like Goodwill? Surely, if you’re poor, that’s where you should buy your bras from anyway, right? Well, all other concerns placed to the side for now, the selection in thrift stores is often inadequate. Fellow lingerie blogger Wide Curves had this to say:

wide curves twitter quote

If a woman wears an A cup or a G cup, Goodwill is not likely to meet her needs. As a thrift store, they’re simply not equipped to offer the range of options a dedicated lingerie store can.

Edit: Several people have mentioned that department stores as well as discount retailers like TJ Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory, Target, and H&M are all options, and that’s an excellent point. However, many of these retailers still have a very limited size range, and buying options are a bit of a crapshoot.

If you wear cup sizes B-D, those are all great choices, but, once again, if you’re outside of core sizes (or, if you have special needs), you’re out of luck. My issue with this ruling is two-fold: 1) it limits options, most especially for women who already face a rather restricted set of choices to begin with and 2) it equates lingerie to gambling, alcohol, tattoos, and pornography. This article isn’t about saying people should use their welfare benefits at La Perla or Agent Provocateur…but that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that this bill makes certain assumptions which could adversely affect women (and results in a de facto ban on buying lingerie if you happen to be outside core sizing).

Look, this article isn’t about saying welfare benefits should be some kind of anything goes free-for-all, but that was never happening anyway. The overwhelming majority of people receiving benefits have them because they need them. One of my previous jobs was as a caseworker working with women who were transitioning off of public assistance, and it is hard enough as-is to find a job when you’re poor. Why is the government passing rules to make it even harder, intentionally or otherwise?

While a bra may seem like a luxury item to some, when you’re in the workforce, it’s a necessity. No matter how much I wish people could go braless whenever they pleased, I know that doesn’t match with reality. I know there are real, tangible, financial consequences to not having what are seen as the appropriate undergarments for work. If you need an analogy, this is like saying you can’t use cash assistance to buy tampons, pads, or toilet paper. Sometimes, the idea of what constitutes a “luxury” is in the eye of the beholder.

What do you think of this new legislation? Do you have any thoughts on how the stigma surrounding lingerie can lead to real social consequences?

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Cora
Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

15 Comments on this post

  1. michelle says:

    I think this is an example of yankee puritanism and its suspicion of anything embellished or non-utilitarian.

    It is the difference between lingerie and underwear. Underwear is practical and serves a purpose. Lingerie is superficial, hedonistic and unnecessary except for the seduction of a sexual partner.

    They are not saying women have to go around with nothing on beneath their clothes.

    Not saying I agree with this method of thinking, but it is deeply ingrained in our culture on so many levels, also outside fashion.

  2. Aurora says:

    As someone who spent a large amount of time living in Kansas (and still visits relatives there at least yearly) one key point you’re missing is distance. There’s still large parts of Kansas where the nearest WalMart is over a half hour’s drive. Stores like Target, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx are rare. In fact, I just google-mapped TJ Maxx, and there are 6 (maybe 7) in Kansas, and they’re concentrated mostly in the NorthEast corner. If you live anywhere West of Wichita (for those who don’t know Kansas geography, that’s halfway across the state) you’re out of luck. Internet access in these areas can also be very expensive due to the distances between people. It’s more of a problem because stores are so rare out there compared to the coasts, and most people on the coast don’t realize how crowded and full of resources their communities are compared to the midwest.

  3. Christin says:

    In response to your question, Towanda, i’ve also had a friend “talked to” at work for wearing an unpadded bra. She was told that she was too “distracting” and needed to wear padded bras. This is in a professional setting. My friend has a Master’s degree. We live in the US.

  4. Thursday says:

    So, my field of work is often related to issues of welfare and government funded social assistance, so I am really struggling with a number of issues here.
    First, I’ve never really been on board with the idea that those in receipt of taxpayer-funded welfare payments should be restricted by the law as to what they can spend that money on. I’m not an expert in this by any means, but in Australia at least, it’s been my understanding that policies which have targeted substance abuse within welfare-dependent communities have had a measure of success not because of laws which make the purchase or supply of substances, including alcohol, illegal, but because of the support services and community assistance that have been introduced with those measures. So, I don’t believe that legislating what people on welfare can buy with those payments is valid. I’m happy for someone to share some evidence on the success of any such measures if they know of it.
    Second, the blanket exclusion of “lingerie stores” is just mind-boggling. Underwear can readily be considered a requirement for the conduct of everyday life for people of all genders, including within the workplace. If the government is so concerned about the potential for taxpayer funds being spent on “luxury” items, then why don’t they issue standardised, regulated underwear to welfare recipients? Because that’s what you do to prisoners, who have had the right to choose their own clothing rescinded. You cannot treat welfare recipients like prisoners, and restrict their rights as punishment for being in receipt of welfare. I feel these restrictions demonstrate a negative, misinformed attitude towards welfare recipients that only reinforces the stigma associated with being on payments. It’s a frequent theme I hear from those on welfare payments that the limiting of their choices by the requirements of the welfare system makes escaping disadvantage harder, not easier.
    The more I learn about welfare in the US, the less I understand. Can I additionally point out that this bill does not prohibit the purchase of guns?

  5. Towanda! says:

    I was in Canada recently and a friend told me that she had been asked my her employer to wear a bra to work. I was totally gobsmacked. She wears a uniform, so my first problem is this: her uniform is apparently so transparent that her employer could see that she wasn’t wearing one. My second problem is off course that a person’s undergarments are their own damn business. Never experienced bra-shaming in the UK. Is it a North America thing?

  6. Jacqueline says:

    re: “thoughts on how the stigma surrounding lingerie can lead to real social consequences:” Firstly, I think this article is dead on. Lingerie is clothing. It has function outside of the allure of the bedroom and is a necessary part of a woman’s wardrobe. Now for my distant tangent here in response to your closing inquiry. Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is how the stigma surrounding lingerie adds to rape-culture. As a woman who wears luxury lingerie–a lot of which falls under the category of “exotic,” depending who you ask–I have experienced abuse in my interactions with men based on that they cannot divorce exotic lingerie from sex and pornography. There is a sort of violence which has occurred in several of my past relationships where I have been valued only for the sexual image they conceive of me based on my choice of lingerie. This includes wearing stockings and garters, harness bras, and other items that are visible. Because in our culture we so often see those types of clothing in the context of pornography, strip clubs, and fetish (all of which there is absolutely nothing wrong with). But the sex worker, as we know it is often the vector for sexual violence. Therefore the exotic lingerie that we so often associate with the sex worker is often taken as a green-light for some men to treat a woman as if she is automatically sexually available. My thoughts on this are still very rough, and there are a variety of issues therein that deserve to be addressed. If we were not being taught to associate lingerie with sex then we would be less likely to assume that those who wear exotic lingerie deserve to be sexualized and therefore are fair game to sexual violence and abuse.

  7. Adia says:

    Never mind that the “benefits” they are regulating don’t cover the cost of living for impoverished folks (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/how-the-poor-the-middle-c_n_1732422.html) but what about all of the hinderances that lower income women already face regarding breast feeding. Now they can’t buy decent nursing bras to boot? Stack the deck against people and expect them to win the game–makes a lot of sense.

  8. Amani says:

    It says lingerie shops, not lingerie. This means you can go to a Target, but not a Victoria Secrets. If you are spending other people’s money, you should use the most inexpensive around. Most lingerie shops are not where your are going to find the most inexpensive stuff.

    • Cora Cora says:

      I don’t think anyone is insisting that women should buy the most expensive lingerie on the market (of which Victoria’s Secret definitely is not). Rather, it’s about acknowledging a fact we should all recognize: the bra selection at stores like Target is abysmal, and many women will not be able to find a bra that fits them and puts them within the boundaries of socially acceptable dress and grooming for the job market. If you wear a 36G, Target cannot help you; you need a specialty retailer. That is not a “luxury” or sexual purchase, and it should not banned.

    • Trish says:

      Target doesn’t carry my size. Victorias Secret doesn’t carry my size (and their bras are crap, IMO). Specialty shops and Nordstroms are the only places I’ve found where I can try before I buy.

      • Tulip Noire says:

        Not to mention, to someone who needs income assistance Nordstrom is not necessarily a place that they are going to shop in. While $80 seems like an appropriate and comfortable price for those of us who have relative financial stability it’s not equivalent to a $30 bra at target. Even without regulations bras for D cups and up is not easy to find when you are on a tight budget.

    • Bunny says:

      I wear a 40J bra and buy my bras at a specialty store because that’s literally the only place other than the internet where I can find them – Nordstrom can’t contain my girls, so the idea of being able to find a bra at Target is incredibly hysterical. I resent like hell that I have to drop $65 minimum every time I need a new bra, particularly now that I’m out of work, but I don’t have any other options.

      Your assumption that anyone can find a bra at inexpensive prices at box stores or even department stores is incredibly wrong and frankly incredibly tiresome.

  9. Way to fail, Kansas! It really bothers me that these women are being denied access. Yesterday, I had a customer who had just reentered the work force and had saved her money to buy a bra. She had been purchasing Gs as that was the largest she could find, but she really need a JJ. Her new job in food service was impacted because her breasts were falling out of the cup, pulling down her back, and generally making it difficult for her to perform the tasks of her job. Bras are not optional for some women, and to penalize the ones who desperately need them shows what a sad state we’re in right now.

  10. Lee Rivers says:

    Uh, isn’t Kansas the state that tried to close its budget deficit by selling sex toys it had repossessed from a tax evader?
    Also, I hope they can still use the money in the underwear section of a department store.

  11. Estelle says:

    The only thing I can think in their defence is that maybe it was too hard to separate lingerie shops from adult/sex shops because a few cross over & they’d have had to publish a list of ‘approved’ lingerie shops. (I don’t know if there is a US equivalent to Ann Summers for example – it’s a socially accepted lingerie store in every city of the UK, that also sells a lot of sex toys.)

    Even if that was their reasoning, I still think banning spending welfare on lingerie is ridiculous. That’s like banning shoe shops. Certain styles of shoes can have sexual connotations or be worn in a sexual setting, but they’re also a daily necessity for most!

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