No cash, no problems

Shawn Magrath

It’s no secret that welfare abuse is a problem that exists in (and well beyond) the parameters of Chenango County. So any effort of local, state, and federal legislators to mitigate the threat of welfare abuse is something I would usually stand and applaud. However, a bill passed in the State Senate this week that would prohibit welfare recipients from using cash assistance to gamble, or buy tobacco products and alcohol, I think deserves a little criticism, not because I disagree with the intent to cut down on welfare fraud, but because I think the bill, in reality, is meaningless since it’s almost impossible to enforce.

Making it illegal to use public assistance for anything other than basic essentials, while good in theory, falls way short of solving the actual problem at hand. The problem, as identified by the Public Assistance Integrity Act, is that individuals receiving welfare are using cash assistance (which is not currently regulated) for anything and everything other than its intended use. But in my opinion, labeling such action “illegal” isn’t going to stop violators (an argument I’m sure pro-gunners are all too familiar with). Not to mention, how could anyone prove cash spent at the strip club is that of public assistance? And will the impending investigations of cash assistance misuse cost tax payers just as much, if not more, than what it’s currently costing without tougher restrictions in place (and please note, I’m not implying anything here… I really don’t have an answer)?

The bill would also prevent individuals who receive welfare from using their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to make ATM withdrawals from certain places, including liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs. My theory? It’s much better to find a way to ditch cash assistance altogether. So what if ATM withdrawals can only be made at the bank across the street from the liquor store? I’m sure the money withdrawn will spend the same. Perhaps – if it’s possible – we should broaden the Food Stamps program to include other essentials like toiletries, toothpaste, hygiene products and the like, and eliminate cash assistance altogether. No cash, no problems. It seems so simple.

I can’t help but think the Senate’s decision to pass this legislation was anything more than an impulsive reaction to the recent threat of losing $120 million in federal funds for cash assistance (a good reaction, maybe, but a quick and non-specific one no less). That is to say, the issue of welfare fraud certainly didn’t grow overnight. Legislators have had time – years, even – to give the issue more thought and develop a better solution. In my opinion, the Senate’s bill is too little an effort to control what has become a frustrating issue for the millions who genuinely need public assistance and use it responsibly.