Massachusetts state legislators have made it harder to spend welfare dollars on goods like alcohol and beauty supplies over the objections of their governor.
The state House and Senate agreed on provisions prohibiting the expenditure of cash benefits, via a credit card-like EBT card that also holds food stamps, or certain items, like tattoos, and at certain establishments, like liquor stores, in late June, but Gov. Deval Patrick objected and amended the bill. (Click here for House bill.)
“I’ve had to drag our governor kicking and screaming all the way. … He took out all the items we prohibited: guns, jewelry. We also prohibited it at those stores. He took out nail shops,” said Shaunna O'Connell, a House Republican on the Ways and Means Committee who has led calls for, and has been repeatedly frustrated in, reforming the way welfare money is handed out.
His reasoning for reinstating them, she said, was along the lines of: “A woman may need to get her nails done for a job interview.”
But the lawmakers in both chambers overrode the governor, with the Senate voting on Thursday, Ms. O'Connell said.
In 2012, technology like ubiquitous credit-card readers and universal product codes make it easy to ensure that welfare money is spent on the necessities it was intended for, she said. But despite the ban on using the credit cards on certain items, they can still be used to withdraw cash from an ATM.
“We’ve done these reforms but they won’t be effective at all unless we deal with the fact that they can withdraw cash. At this point they’re able to withdraw 100 percent in cash. Our records show they withdraw 85 percent in cash.”
The state has established a commission of executive branch and legislative branch workers to study the implementation of a cashless system — a bureaucratic move Ms. O'Connell said she hopes will bear fruit, but was “wary” of.
“I introduced a very comprehensive reform bill, part of it was no more cash, but people weren’t willing to do that. There’s a lot of resistance,” she said.
The primary recipients of welfare dollars that aren’t converted to cash are run-down corner stores that sell liquor and overpriced junk food, she said. Tattoo parlors have advertised accepting the cards, and lottery winners have continued receiving the benefits.
The Washington Times reported last month that when it comes to the $80 billion food stamp program, junk food manufacturers and convenience stores have spent millions successfully lobbying Congress to allow food stamps to be spent at such places, and that the Agriculture Department refuses to give taxpayers the slightest idea how or where that money is spent.
In many states, including Maryland and Massachusetts, the same cards also hold additional taxpayer-funded assistance that, unlike food stamps, can be spent on not only food, but anything.