While New York state strictly regulates what food stamps can be used for, that isn’t the case with welfare grants. Recipients can use their state-issued debit cards to buy things, or use them at ATMs to get cash to buy things, that no reasonable person would say public assistance should be used for — from alcohol and tobacco to lottery tickets and casino games to drugs and strip clubs. Whether it does it administratively or legislatively, the state needs to put a stop to this.
None of these products or activities is healthy or productive for individuals or families. If food stamps can be used only for such things as fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and dairy products, and not for beer, wine, alcohol or tobacco, then welfare plastic and cash should be no different. They should be limited to paying for housing and energy costs, household necessities, school supplies and the like, as intended.
It’s not punishment of the poor to put such limits on how public assistance is used, it’s responsible use of taxpayers’ dollars. And it’s good public policy to not only help struggling families, but to encourage a moral, healthy lifestyle that will help them become self-sufficient. That can’t happen if moms and dads are blowing the welfare money on various vices.
There’s a bill in the state Senate that would go a long way toward stopping this legalized fraud. It would prohibit the use of a social services debit card to directly pay for such things as cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets at retail stores. It would do the same at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs, as well as forbid the use of ATM machines to withdraw cash at those places.
Of course abusers could always use the debit card to get cash from an off-premises ATM and use it however they want. But if what they want isn’t allowed under the law, then they will be subject to penalties — one month of no benefits for the first violation, three months for the second, and a permanent cutoff for the third. And they will be told this, and agree to it, when they sign up for welfare.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority is looking to make these changes through regulation by the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, rather than legislation. It really doesn’t matter how it’s done — some of the 25 states that have restricted how welfare benefits can be used have done it through executive action, while other have done it through legislation — just as long as it’s done. And if the state hasn’t acted by February, the federal government will penalize it by cutting $120 million in aid. That’s quite an incentive to take action that should be taken anyway.