Near midnight on the final day of January. One month is about to fade into history and another will be born.
The men and women milling outside Community Credit Union on Pine Street in Lewiston are keenly aware of this. Welfare benefits come out on the first of the month, and in the age of technology, that means one second after midnight.
At 11:30 p.m., it didn’t look like much at all. One young man leaned against the ATM and punched buttons on his smartphone. It was a cold night and a slushy one, and he looked like just another downtown kid who might be waiting for a ride.
At 11:45, two other men showed up on foot and fell in line without a word. Minutes later, a minivan pulled up and a group of people got out to mill around under the yellow security lights. At 11:50, two women walked over from a side street. They surveyed the line briefly and continued chatting as they waited for midnight.
Two men with hoodies walked up Pine street and kept their distance from the others. A cab pulled to a stop across Pine Street and two young women got out. By the final seconds of January, the crowd outside Community Credit Union had grown to more than a dozen. The group was equal parts men and women. None appeared to be older than 25.
In the old days, people who collected government assistance had to wait for food stamps or a benefit check to arrive in the mail. The check came along at the first of the month, too, but not with anything like the speed of today’s benefits. A parent from a family of six, for example, might see up to $856 in Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) load into his or her account at the stroke of midnight. That money can be withdrawn with a Maine EBT card — electronic benefit transfer — and spent any way the recipient desires.
Police and others began to notice long lines outside the credit around midnight on the last night of each month.
So when midnight strikes at the ATM on Pine Street, you might expect it to be chaos. But it’s not. When the hour came, it was almost orderly.
The young man at the front of the line slid in his card, punched in his numbers and walked away with a handful of bills, counting it as he went.
The second young man got his money and immediately got on his cell phone to make a call.
The group in the minivan got their money and drove off. The two men in hoodies walked lazily toward Sabattus Street afterward.
In the 15 minutes following the change of months, the ATM outside Community Credit Union looked like a ticket agency before a big show. People came with their cards and left with cash. They came from all directions, mostly on foot. At 20 past the hour, a young man on a bicycle pedaled up, withdrew money without getting off his bike and wheeled off through the slush toward downtown.
All was quiet again on Pine Street. But not so at nearby bars and at the 7-Eleven, where a spending frenzy marked the beginning of February.
It’s not just Lewiston, of course. The first-of-the-month frenzy is a well-known phenomenon just about everywhere in the nation. Songs have been written about it. Many folks cling to the idea that crime spikes in the first few days of any given month, the result of a welfare benefits spending spree.
Simply observing the monthly ritual at Community Credit Union early on that Feb. 1, there was no way to tell whether anyone was actually using an EBT card or, if they were, how much a user received in cash and what their plans were for the money. Police say there is ample evidence that some EBT card holders use their welfare benefits to buy drugs. Drug investigators say they often see a single drug trafficker in possession of several EBT cards belonging to others, the assumption being that those EBT cards were handed over to pay off debts.
Perhaps no one gets as close a view of the situation as local store clerks. Anything that can be purchased with a regular debit or credit card can also be purchased with an EBT card loaded with TANF or ASPIRE (Additional Support for People in Retraining and Development) benefits. Locally, most stores accept those cards. Some, however, do not.
“Some people get very irate when told that the store doesn’t take the EBT card,” said one local store clerk. “I’ve been called stupid and told that everyone accepts the card. People will come in and try to buy alcohol, cigarettes, blunts (cigars) or blunt wraps.
“Yet another time, a woman came in, walked to the beer cooler, grabbed a six-pack of Bud Light 16-ounce bottles, brought them to the counter, then asked for a pack of Newport 100s and a pack of Marlboros. I rang it in and told her the total. Again with the EBT card. I told her that we don’t accept EBT. She goes to the ATM, withdraws cash using the card and comes back to the counter to pay. Just then her boyfriend comes in and tells her to ‘get a couple of those Dutch Masters.'”
The clerk asked that he not be identified so as not to embroil the store in controversy. But he said what he sees as rampant abuse of the system prompted him to complain to his state representative. He said the representative forwarded the complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services and assured the clerk in a note that welfare funds do not mean endless spending.
“Once the money runs out,” the email read, “they don’t get any more that month.”