Sunday, January 26, 2014

EBT card abuse should outrage all of us - By Sen. Gary Plummer

We’ve all heard the anecdotal stories about welfare abuse: The person at the grocery store who uses food stamps to get cash and then buys cigarettes, alcohol or candy, or the ones cheating the system by taking benefits when they’re not eligible for them.

Up until now, there hasn’t been much to go on in terms of evidence when trying to determine how widespread the problem of welfare abuse in Maine is.

Now there is.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently released data on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) transactions of Maine recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients.

The results are troubling, to say the least.

According to the Department, since 2012, more than 3000 EBT transactions on Maine issued cards took place at 22 “smoke shops” which primarily sell cigarettes and other tobacco products. 

There are also examples of individuals spending hundreds of dollars at a time in liquor stores. According to the report, “One liquor store in New Hampshire had more than a thousand transactions totaling nearly $8,000.”

There were some 650 transactions at establishments that primarily sell liquor, such as bars and sports pubs.
There are also examples of Maine EBT cards being used in 46 states by people who have not been living in Maine for more than a year. Maine cash welfare benefits in some form have been used in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 

EBT cards have also been used at strip clubs on the taxpayer’s dime.

The data reflect purchases made at the counter of all of these establishments and ATM withdrawals on the premises. 

I would hope that we can all agree that there are many Mainers among us who are in dire need of assistance. Many of them are living day to day, sometimes having to make the difficult decision of whether to use their limited resources to buy food, get their prescriptions filled, or keep a little heating oil in their tank. They are the ones for whom the system is intended and they are the ones who are hurt most by those who abuse it.

Some have suggested that all of these apparent abuses of the benefit cards only represent a small fraction of all EBT transactions. Statistically speaking, they may be correct, but I would like to ask a question of those who raise that point: Bank robberies are only committed by a small number of people, too. Should we not try to prevent them?

And while welfare fraud may not be as dramatic as a robbery, is it not the same thing? Only in this case, it’s the Maine taxpayer that is being robbed.

During this session, the legislature will be taking up three bills that are designed to address welfare fraud. One of them would place limits on where recipients can use EBT cards, so we can be reasonably assured that taxpayer money isn’t being used for liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Given the examples cited above, I believe this bill is worthy of serious consideration.

Senator Gary Plummer (R-Cumberland) serves on the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

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