Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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In Our View: End Welfare Abuse

Legislature should pass bill that mandates proper use of EBT cards

The Columbian

Helping needy families is more than just a manifestation of the Golden Rule. And reasonable Washingtonians have no objection to the public providing assistance to needy families, within reason. That would include food, shelter and clothing. But tattoos, body piercings, bail bonds, booze and visits to strip joints hardly fall “within reason.”

Senate Bill 5327 would remove those abuses from the state welfare program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The bill makes so much sense, its mere presence before legislators in 2011 makes taxpayers smack their foreheads and exclaim: “Egad! Why are we only now getting around to doing this?”

Yes, it’s frustrating, and the problem might not even have come to light had it not been for “Reset Washington,” a website run by Senate Republicans that last fall asked state workers to make efficiency recommendations. Numerous reports of fraud and abuse within the TANF program turned up.

Last Friday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee correctly passed SB 5327. Among the co-sponsors is Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. We urge the full Legislature to expedite this bill into law not just to protect the taxpayers’ right to responsible use of their money, but also to protect benefits recipients from their own frivolous habits, at least to eliminate the state sanction of such behavior.

TANF benefits are provided through electronic benefits transfer cards (EBTs), which essentially are debit cards, with accounts receiving monthly additions. But an unintended consequence of the modernized system is irresponsible spending of the money. One of the worst abuses to be reported was the trading of EBTs for drugs.

A summary of public testimony in favor of SB 5327 begins with this troubling assessment: “EBT cards are being used in gambling establishments, strip clubs etc.; we don’t know where else.” If state officials don’t know where else, it’s high time to find out and close off such abuse. Here’s a good place to start: “All purchases with an EBT card can be tracked so we know that EBT cards are being used for items and services for which TANF benefits were not intended.”

The bill that Zarelli co-sponsors gets specific: tattoos, body piercing, alcohol and tobacco would not be allowed for purchase with an EBT. Also, the cards could not be used at taverns, liquor stores, bail bond agencies, gambling establishments, adult entertainment venues or any other place where minors are not permitted.

This would place an extra burden on merchants, who would be required to disable the ability of ATMs and point-of-sale machines located on their business premises to accept EBT cards. But the beneficial impact for taxpayers would be worth that one-time inconvenience. Merchants — the overwhelming majority of them, at least — already have demonstrated their capacity to restrict sale of alcohol and tobacco to minors. Asking them to restrict abuse of TANF benefits is reasonable.

Opponents of SB 5327 are concerned that the bill would make it a gross misdemeanor to misuse the EBT card. But such a penalty seems appropriate, especially when the bill would require the Department of Social and Health Services to notify all EBT cardholders about the punishment.

Among the victims of welfare abuse are law-abiding welfare recipients. When the system is made more efficient, more funds are available to use properly. That’s why SB 5327 should be passed, plus the fact that taxpayers are tired of smacking their foreheads.