Senate approves new restrictions on welfare purchases

Kathleen Ronayne, Seacoastonline.com 

CONCORD — The Republican-led Senate voted Thursday to prohibit more than 12,000 New Hampshire welfare recipients from using their cash benefits to buy alcohol, tobacco, firearms and several other items.

“We want to help people who are in need,” said Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester, the bill’s prime sponsor. “But it’s not fair for me to pay in money to help somebody out who is spending this money irresponsibly, who is spending it on getting a tattoo or alcohol or tobacco.”

A total of 12,266 households in New Hampshire receive cash benefits through electronic benefit — or EBT — cards, which function like debit cards. Since 2014, state and federal law have banned people from using the cards at liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment venues. Roughly half of states have legislative restrictions on the use of EBT cards.

The Senate bill extends that ban to specific items as well, prohibiting the cards or cash withdrawn from them to be used for alcohol, firearms, gambling, lottery tickets, tobacco or adult entertainment. It also rules out tattoo or body piercing parlors. The bill passed the upper chamber 19-4 and will be sent to the Republican-led House. A similar bill died in the Democratic-controlled House last year.

Supporters say taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for such items, but opponents say the law would be difficult to enforce and could reinforce stereotypes about poor people.

After the new federal requirements banning purchases at specific locations went into effect, the department tracked 89 violations over a period of two months, said Terry Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance in the state’s Health and Human Services Department.

There are currently no restrictions on what items the cash benefits can buy.

A 2013 audit of the EBT program by the Legislative Budget Assistant’s office found 78 percent of benefits are withdrawn as cash rather than used on the card. It would be unrealistic to expect cashiers to ask people if they used an EBT card to get cash when they buy something, said MaryLou Beaver, New Hampshire director of Every Child Matters. Beaver also worries the law could prompt greater scrutiny of people who simply look like they could receive welfare benefits.

“Having cashiers have to play policemen, it’s ludicrous,” she said. “It just seems like it’s setting up a really bad set of circumstances when you start to regulate the cash piece and the products.”

A separate bill that has already passed the House would extend only the restricted locations, adding tattoo or piercing parlors, cigar stores and smoke shops and marijuana dispensaries. Beaver said her organization supports that change.

In both bills, anyone who uses the cards for banned purchases would be subject to suspension of cash benefits for two pay periods after the first offense. The punishment would extend to six pay periods after the third offense.

Smith said the department has a 13-month backlog in fraud referrals and the bill doesn’t account for increased costs of enforcement.

Forrester, the sponsor, says she realizes the bill would be difficult to enforce. But, she said, passing it will help people use the cards the way they were intended.

“At the very least we should be educating people about how they can make better choices and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to do,” she said

Originally published March 26, 2015 Seacoastonline.com