We should help the needy - but we shouldn't support scams

March 9, 2011 

There was a time when food stamp recipients were made to feel like second-class citizens while purchasing groceries for their family.

Many will remember the days when people on food stamps had to use easily recognized coupons to make their purchases. There might as well have been a flashing neon sign above their head reading: “welfare mom,” or “welfare dad.”

Use of food stamp coupons was demeaning and embarrassing for those who – for whatever reason – found themselves in need of financial assistance from the state of Washington.

Several years ago the state moved away from food stamp coupons and issued electronic benefits transfer or EBT cards to people enrolled in the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The cards, which look like any other credit or debit card, don’t carry the stigma of food stamp coupons.

But with EBT cards have come a new set of problems – problems that have been highlighted with headlines across the state.

Last summer, for example, KING-5 television reporters in Seattle reported that welfare recipients had withdrawn money from ATMs inside more than 100 casinos, bingo parlors and card rooms across this state. KING-5 reporters also learned that the EBT cards were used inside strip clubs.

That’s not how Washington residents want their tax dollars used by state welfare recipients.

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has introduced Senate Bill 5327 which would ban the use of state EBT cards at tattoo or body piercing shops. The cards could not be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco and EBT card holders would be prohibited from using them or getting ATM cash at taverns, beer and wine specialty stores, nightclubs, state liquor stores, bail bond agencies, gambling establishments, adult entertainment venues or any other place where minors are prohibited.

Carrell says he wants to stop the abuse. In a letter to constituents, the Lakewood senator said, “I’ve recently learned something that I found absolutely shocking. Of the 68,000 people who have been issued an EBT card, 37,000 asked for a replacement card three or more times last year. It’s very clear to me that if someone loses their card and PIN number – and evidence shows that in many cases these cards are being found in the possession of drug dealers or being sold for a fraction of the value – they just call up DSHS the next day and request a new card. And the department simply turns around and issues a new card, fully loaded with taxpayer money. This is starting to look more and more like a totally corrupt system that is enabling individuals to fraudulently sell the cards off.”

Carrell’s bill shifts the burden for policing EBT card use to merchants. He expects merchants to disable their ATMs and point-of-sale machines so they will not accept EBT cards. While inconvenient for merchants, that’s where the abuses are happening and that’s where the abuse must be nipped.

Under the proposed legislation, the Department of Social and Health Services would be required to notify cardholders and merchants of the new restrictions. Merchants who don’t follow the law could lose their license. Cardholders could face civil or criminal prosecution and misuse of an EBT card would be treated as a gross misdemeanor. The law would take effect next January.

This is a reasonable approach to a difficult issue.

This state’s temporary assistance program for needy people helps many, many families put groceries on the table each month. Taxpayers have no problem helping those who help themselves and are in dire circumstances.

But like any program, there are those ne’er-do-wells who will find a way to scam the system. How sad.

Senate Bill 5327 recognizes that EBT card abuse exists and slams the door. Lawmakers should give Sen. Carrell’s legislation their favorable vote.

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