In Maine, it pays to have an EBT card

Gov. Paul LePage (BDN photo by Mario Moretto)

Gov. Paul LePage (BDN photo by Mario Moretto)

Standing in line at the supermarket, surreptitiously catching up on the latest Enquirer gossip, I suddenly caught the words “food stamps” coming from the very well fed couple and their zaftig 20-something daughter ahead of me. Their stash included a cupboard full of junk food and Maine’s best-selling liquor, Allen’s Coffee Brandy.

As they walked away, I asked the woman checking me out if they were actually allowed to purchase alcohol with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card — the card used to dispense federal benefits such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That question unleashed a torrent of anger about the EBT abuses she and her co-workers witnessed daily, including the purchase of beverages that are immediately poured out in the parking lot, in plain view, and brought right back for the return of the bottle deposit.

But wait — we’ve been told by Robert W. Glover at the University of Maine that, “The reality is that we lack any systematic evidence that such ‘misuse’ is widespread.” And according to Robin Merrill from Maine Equal Justice Partners, “The issue has been overblown.”  Steve Robinson at the Maine Wire decided not to take their word for things and actually investigated the situation — and if you are a hardworking Maine taxpayer, you should be horrified.

Apparently, some EBT holders are flush enough to travel because Maine EBT cards have been used in all 50 states (including Hawaii and Alaska), Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. How many Mainers would love to take a vacation but are too busy working to put food on their own tables — and those of these abusers?

After touching down from those vacations, who wouldn’t need a little R & R closer to home? Nearly $4,500 in welfare cash has been withdrawn from an ATM at Seacoast Bingo in Somersworth, N.H. In fact, Maine EBT cards have been used at liquor stores, strip clubs, bars, smoke shops, bowling alleys and amusement parks. And according to Department of Health and Human Services data, Robinson of The Maine Wire writes, “cash welfare spent at stores with the words ‘smoke,’ ‘tobacco,’ or ‘cigarette’ in the name amounts to $360,000 of all cash welfare spending for the past three years. That’s enough to buy 72,000 packs of cigarettes.” And by the way, who’s paying for the health care issues associated with all this smoking and drinking? Just asking.

The night owls have been busy as well. Some $6 million in welfare cash over the past three years has been accessed between midnight and 2 a.m. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that this taxpayer money hasn’t been spent on baby formula and bread.

With this pattern, we’re probably a hop, skip and a jump away from our neighbor to the south, where a recidivist drug dealer was overheard using his one phone call to ask the person on the other end of the line to “get my EBT card and go to the ATM and get the money to bail me out, get me outta here tonight.” (Hope our Legislature doesn’t get any ideas from Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who vetoed and even berated that state legislature’s stab at banning the purchase of specific items like manicures, tattoos, guns, porn, body piercings, jewelry, and bail with EBT cards.)

EBT abuse appears to be rampant across the fruited plain. Among other things, welfare recipients are buying groceries for overseas relatives with their EBT cards and packing them in giant barrels (also bought with EBT cards), which essentially becomes EBT as foreign aid. EBT cards are being sold on Ebay and Craigslist for a fraction of the amount for which they are redeemable.

Because TANF is a cash welfare program, it is completely unaccountable. To claim there is negligible abuse is intellectually dishonest, because the truth is, no one knows how the majority of this money is spent — and therein lies the problem. But what we do know about a small part of the cash welfare business suggests there could be a tremendous amount of abuse going on.

Gov. Paul LePage has introduced legislation that would place certain geographic restrictions on the use of EBT cards. I hope Speaker of the House Mark Eves will follow through with the willingness he’s indicated to consider placing further restrictions on EBT card use.

The cash welfare recipients committing abuse and fraud are ripping off not only the hard working taxpayers of Maine, but with less money to go around, are also stealing from the pockets of those who truly need it.

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Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.