Limits eyed on EBT cards

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON — A bipartisan group of 18 legislators announced yesterday their support for a bill to restrict Massachusetts welfare recipients’ discretionary use of assistance money by banning their ability to withdraw cash from ATMs with electronic benefit cards.

The lawmakers, frustrated by a recommendation by a commission to only ban the use of the cards at nail salons, tattoo parlors, firearms dealers, bars, smoke shops or spas, said more steps are needed to curb further abuse in the welfare system.

“This report failed to make any substantive changes and place restriction and oversight on the $415 million a year this state hands out in cash assistance to people, and taxpayers deserve oversight of these funds,” Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, said at a press conference. “There have been too many problems with this program and minor changes are not going to fix that.”

The report by the Electronic Benefit Transfer Card Commission, which was established by the Legislature, found that 85 percent of EBT benefits were withdrawn in cash between October and December last year.

The EBT cards are part of a state program to provide assistance to 52,000 low-income families. It is separate from the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food and nutritional benefits.

O’Connell’s bill would eliminate EBT users’ access to cash, prohibit use of EBT cards out of state, add more businesses to the list that can’t accept benefits and charge a fee to the 20,000 recipients who need their cards replaced each month.

Inspector General Gregory Sullivan is set to release a report on eligibility fraud in the program on July 1, and some opponents of the bill say there’s not yet enough evidence that abuse is widespread and requires reform.

“I think we have to know the depth of this and what our options are,” said Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, a member of the EBT commission. “I do think that we need to tackle this issue. I think the commission was a great start.”

But fellow Democrat Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut, who supports the bill, said she was outraged by reports of benefits being spent in vacation destinations.

“Stories about them being spent in Hawaii and Florida are just outrageous abuses to a system that’s supposed to help people,” she said. “We’re certainly not against poor people, but if we’re giving them benefits, there has to be some accountability that they’re being used correctly.”

Rep. Richard Bastien, R-Gardner, said he would like EBT card users have some access to cash in case of emergencies, but said he has personally seen examples of benefits being used on luxury items.

“When I worked in retail management, I had people use their EBT cards for payment on flat-screen TVs,” he said. “When they’re being used on purchases like that, we need to put some parameters in place to prevent that from happening.”

Activist opponents who attended the press conference said the bill amounts to a war against the poor — a charge denied by bill sponsors.

Rebekah Gewirtz, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, cited a section of the bill that would require a proposal for certain businesses to put up signs stating that they don’t accept EBT cards.

“They might as well be saying, ‘if you’re poor, you need not apply,’” she said.

Gewirtz also echoed Flanagan’s concern that the issue hasn’t been thoroughly studied.

“They’re going after a problem they haven’t been able to identify exists in a widespread way,” Gerwirtz said.

Diane Sullivan, the policy director of Homes for Families, a homeless advocacy organization, said taking away cash withdrawal would hurt families who may need to take a taxi to the emergency room or have to pay their rent in cash each month.

“I really do fear that we’ll see a huge increase in the number of homeless families if we disallow this access to cash,” said Sullivan, who was once a welfare recipient.

But Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, said instances where cash is the only acceptable form of payment is increasingly rare and expressed confidence the inspector general’s report would back up the need for the bill.

“Realistically speaking, I think there’s going to be enough evidence to show that there is fraud,” she said. “It’s time to use taxpayers resources wisely.”

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