Benefits can buy booze, cigarettes, anything legal

AUGUSTA — State officials here have kicked around possible reforms to the welfare benefits system aimed at preventing fraud and abuse.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said she and others responsible for investigating and prosecuting welfare cheats have discussed the notion of putting photos on EBT (electronic benefits) cards, but realized that wouldn't work because recipients such as shut-ins can hand off their cards to surrogates to shop for them, legally using their PIN numbers.

But enforcers say one of the most frustrating aspects of the welfare benefits system involves uses that, they say, should be illegal but aren't.

A welfare recipient who receives benefits from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Additional Support for People in Retraining and Education (ASPIRE) can walk into a supermarket and legally use their EBT card to buy a case of beer or a pack of cigarettes.

Robbin said she was "shocked" when she learned about the allowance. Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said he was disappointed to learn it was legal.

A spokesman for DHHS said there are no restrictions on the use of the benefits. In fact, TANF and ASPIRE money, under federal law, can be used for anything. DHHS is not allowed to require TANF or ASPIRE recipients to submit receipts showing that the federally mandated benefits were spent on intended items or services.

John Martins, director of communications at DHHS, said state authorities are researching options to help clamp down on purchases of alcohol, tobacco and other items with TANF or ASPIRE money on their EBT cards.

"We've been meeting with a DHHS fraud group every week and looking at both of those things, statutes that we need to change and improve, the systems we need to change, and also look at ... where are the loopholes to game the system and how do we close those within the authority the state has under these federally mandated programs," Robbin said.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins remembered when a prisoner at his Auburn jail was being booked several years ago. The man was allowed to use the jail's ATM machine to withdraw cash. When his jailers realized heintended to use his EBT card to pay his bail, they balked — even though it is legal — and the man stayed in jail.

"That element is always going to find a way to get around the system," Desjardins said.

Soon after, jail officials contacted the ATM's vendor to reprogram the machine so that it wouldn't allow EBT card transactions, Desjardins said.

In Washington, D.C., a bill that overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House and is currently before the Senate Finance Committee would require states that get federal welfare money to maintain policies and practices necessary to prevent the use of state TANF money in any transaction at a liquor store, casino or gambling establishment or strip club, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said. That bill, called the Welfare Integrity Now for Children and Families Act, establishes penalties for states that don't report on their implementation of or enforcement of those polices and practices.

John Graham Jr., a spokesman for Maine U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said the legislation, which Michaud supported, is a "step in the right direction." 

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Tira Cottrell's picture

Drug test everyone.

I had to give a UA in order to get my job and my employer has a random UA policy. I have to abide by this in order to get my money. This should be done for anyone and everyone that applies for any assistance. When you apply, you take a UA. Then you are put into a computerized system that randomly picks a percentage of people that are getting the assistance. When notified that you have been chosen, you have a certain amount of time to show up for the test. If you do not show up, your benefits are suspended. I know some people are going to argue my comment, but I think it will work. I know not everyone is on drugs but if you do not do drugs, then you have nothing to worry about.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Go one step further...if

Go one step further...if people are receiving benefits and are on prescription medication then test them to make sure their levels are what they are suppose to be and to probe they are not selling their medication. I have a neighbor that sells their pills, smokes pot, and then rats other tenants out for every minor infraction.

Allisa Milliard's picture

surprise

what a big shock. people have been telling that to reps for years. we were told that those were just anicdotes by people who hate the poor. surprise, surprise, surprise. you would think that if these dolts in dhhs really did care for the elderly, children, and the disabled that they would be doing everything that they can to ensure that the funds were not being misused and abused by lazy lay abouts.

John Clement's picture

go back to giving out brown

go back to giving out brown paper sacks of flour, rice, dried eggs, dried milk, cheese, canned ham and a cookbook. they won't starve and won't cost us more.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

If anyone wonders why . . .

. . . the right-wingers and LeRage are up in arms over welfare, this is certainly one of their valid reasons. It's a travesty that TANF or ASPIRE benefits are not fully regulated (and ultimately enforced) appropriately, and it's an insult to all taxpayers on both sides of the isle. I lean left, yes; but on this issue, drastic, possibly draconian reform is needed. Booze, ciggy butts, chips, soda, candy, cash . . . and bail? Holy cow. ASPIRE my keister. FAILURE should be the acronym for this government-assistance-gone-wild boondoggle.

Roberta Greenlaw's picture

ebt cards

there is so much abuse with these cards. some of them have up to 7000.00 on their cards. go to walmart and see how some of the carts are over flowing with food while as for myself a cash payer I have a hand basket. Is everyone blind to what is going on with this welfare state. I was told some of them have a different colored card that is a federal card that allows them to buy anything even cars and land. that was told to me yesterday when I was having difficult emotions with the fact that while I was at walmart the desparity between the way "they can shop" and how I "have to shop" as a senior citizen.

Dan Moody's picture

FOOD STAMPS

Let go back to the old FOOD STAMP . CASH ??????

Heather M. Conley's picture

If the state can make it so

If the state can make it so you can buy hot food with food stamps why can they make the restrictions on buying cigs and alcohol....This state is falling apart fast because of the people in it. I once was a tanf recipient and i was glad it was there for me but we did have a card then...as a matter of fact my rent money was sent directly to my landlord and the rest paid my bills....the other problem is there are so many drug addicts out there and most people dont realize that most of them became that way because of the doctors that hand out preciption drugs like there candy....It is sad that this state cant get there fingers out of there butt and make something happen....like i said IF THE STATE CAN CONTROL THE BUY OF HOT FOOD WITH FOODSTAMPS WHY CAN THEY PUT A STOP TO BUYING CIGS AND ALCOHOL....HMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

ebt

I think you should be able to buy hot food on foodstamps. What about those who have nothing to cook on? Of course you would have to put restricitons on going to a restaurant to buy a 25.00 steak or whatever, but go to shaws and buy a hot soup from the salad bar should be allowed. They can also regulate the purchase of cigs and alchohol on ebt cards. There are ways that They can also regualte the purchase of drugs.

RONALD RIML's picture

Tobacco is still legal why??

Tobacco is still legal why??

The Govt is addicted to the tax $$ - so let them buy tobacco and you get most of the $$ back.

Carl Kimball's picture

EBT Cards...OOPS

They were surprised and shocked to find that these people could buy tobacco and booze. I can't believe, no wait, i can believe these people we put in office don't have a clue what is going on out here in the real world. Their like, "It looks good on paper, let's go with this program." We have been handing out these cards for how long now?! And their shocked that people would use it for that. They got rid of food stamps, because people was trading them for money, tobacco, booze, drugs, etc. So here's another shocker, their still swapping food money for these things. These are humans and just like politicans, their capable of mis-useing money in any form. Remember the old saying, "A lock is to keep an honest person honest." An honest person will spend it the right way,(i hope), but a dishonest person will always find a away around the rules. But even a regular Joe who isn't on these programs and has a job will spend the money first on what he wants and not what he needs, it's human nature i guess or the land of wants and too many choices or "let's follow our elected officials." Last word, come down to human level and mingle with the real world, and i'm not talking just a town meeting, get your body down here among us,MINGLE....(just my opinion and not that of this newspaper)

John Cote's picture

here's an idea.......

put a restriction on that all ebt cards can not withdraw cash from any and all atm's that way they have a paper trail if one needs to follow it and only one can pay bills with that money

DONALD FERLAND's picture

While that would be a nice

While that would be a nice idea it wouldn't work unless businesses accepted the card. For example, I can pay rent with my EBT card but I cannot pay my CMP bill with it. I have to withdraw the cash and either get a money order or go to an agent that takes the payment. It would be nice if I could just produce the card and pay the bill as then I wouldn't have to make the extra step of going to an ATM. So to make that happen, the state would have to get CMP and phone companies to accept the cards.

Heather M. Conley's picture

THE ONLY PROBLEM WITH THAT IS

THE ONLY PROBLEM WITH THAT IS IF THEY CAN GET CASH HOW WOULD THEY PAY THEIR RENT...I DONT KNOW ANY LANDLORD THAT CARRIES A DEBIT MACHINE WITH THEM...I KNOW YEARS AGO DONT KNOW IF THEY STILL DO IT OR NOT BUT THE STATE WOULD LET YOU SIGN A PAPER GIVING THEM PERMISSION TO SEND YOUR RENT DIRECTLY TO THE LANDLORDS...MAYBE THAT SHOULD BE MANDITORY....AND WHATS LEFT ON THE CARD SO THEY CAN PAY OTHER BILLS AND BUY HOUSEHOLD ITEMS IN THE STORE...

Douglas Mac antSaior's picture

Jobs also provide money that

Jobs also provide money that can be used quite universally to pay for just about anything.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Some landlords currently

Some landlords currently accept the EBT cards for rent payments.

Carl Kimball's picture

Maybe so

John, i agree with you, but just like the food card,they can do swaps with other people to get the tobacco, booze and money. Dishonest people always find a way a round the rules.

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