The Smart Money: Is it about the money? Or the ideology?

Posted Tuesday, March 25, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: Is it about the money? Or the ideology?

Photo credit: Sun Journal

by Gina Hamilton

Every time we look around, we see that someone, somewhere, is worried that someone is having a good time on the Taxpayer Dime.

Now, I am not sure how much fun being on welfare actually is; I suspect not much. But racheting the screws down on the poor isn't going to prevent welfare fraud.

Gov. Paul LePage is worried that someone might be misusing Maine funds (well, actually federal funds, but who's keeping track?) spent on TANF and the SNAP program, which used to be called food stamps.  To solve the problem, he suggests photos on the Electronic Benefit cards that people now use for such things, rather than federal food coupons that screamed "taker!"  Since a lot of people use their bank cards nowadays to purchase groceries, there must be some way to shame the poor and unemployed, and perhaps photos on the cards will do it.

Now, LePage has no evidence that a whole lot of fraud is going on, indeed, every time they've actually looked for abuse in the system, very little has come up. There have been a few cases where people have used EBT cards - which are used for everything from SNAP and TANF to unemployment benefits - at smoke shop ATMs and at the counter, at strip club ATMs and liquor stores.  Purchases of liquor, cigarettes, and so on are already not legal under SNAP regulations, but there are no rules about where unemployed people can spend their benefits, nor are there any laws about the use of TANF funds.  And indeed, there is no evidence that people on assistance actually used their funds in such a way. They may have merely stopped at the closest ATM, or might work in a liquor store or strip club. We don't know, because we don't expect people, in general, to account for every candy bar or how they spend every $20 an ATM machine spews out. If we did, a lot of us might be in trouble.

However, the photos won't do much, for two reasons.  First, it is not illegal for someone to use another person's card.  That is, a mother can send a teenager to the store for milk and bread, and give him or her the card and the pin, and the teen can legally buy the items.  An elderly person's caregiver can also use the EBT card at will. And secondly, consider how most EBT purchases or bankcard purchases are made. We swipe our cards at a terminal; the cashier never handles our card.  There would be no way to tell if the person whose name appears on the card is the person who is standing in front of the cashier.

The cost, according to a Massachusetts estimate, would jump from 23 cents to $8 per card.  When you multiply just the cost to the state, never mind the cost and inconvenience to parents with small children and the elderly who may need to travel to distant locations - the DHHS office serving Sagadahoc County, for instance, is in Rockland - the cost of providing the cards zooms to $1.89 million, just for the cards themselves, from $54,000 today.

A wise use of funds? Probably not.

Another "law" LePage would like to create is to require everyone receiving any welfare benefits to look for work. People receiving unemployment benefits already are required to look for work and report that they have done so every week. However, so many other people are exempt that this would cause major problems. Elderly people, mothers with very small children, people who are working full time already and are still poor enough to qualify for food stamps, students, the military members who are receiving welfare benefits, the profoundly disabled, and others would be constantly fighting a battle to get needed benefits because of an intrusive new rule that doesn't apply to them.  There would be new infrastructure costs to enforce the law.  And they wouldn't be cheap.

And LePage would like to forbid the use of EBT cards outside the state. So if an unemployed person is interviewing in Rhode Island and needs cash for gas and tolls on the way home, LePage would actually be throwing obstacles in the path of getting a job. For the poor who live on the New Hampshire border, where the cost of food is lower, it could be the difference between having enough food for the month and not. And people do attend family funerals, weddings, and other events out of state.  Being poor does not change that, and they should be able to buy gas and eat while they're there.

In any case, it's unconstitutional.  These are federal programs.

The other rule would be to make it illegal to use the cards for liquor, gambling, and bail.  Again, there should be no restrictions about the use of the funds as long as the thing itself isn't illegal and it's not money specifically allocated to food.  To prevent an adult from buying a lottery ticket or a six pack of beer with unemployment money is the epitome of the "nanny state", something LePage and his friends have been decrying for years.

So we have to examine the real motive here. Is this about LePage, and his unreasoning dislike of the poor and their condition? Or about money? If it's about money, these are stupid new rules to put in place. If it's about shaming the poor and unemployed, it might work.

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