According WPRI’s Tim White and Dan McGowan, 100% of December 2012’s electronic benefit transfer funds are being used at completely legal locations. In any budget anywhere, that would be cause for celebration, it would be a gold standard by which to hold others accountable. However, that was not the lede that WPRI chose. They went with the more eye-catching “thousands of dollars in cash assistance were withdrawn from ATMs in liquor stores, bars, smoke shops and even Twin River casino…”
As Mssrs. White and McGowan show, approximately $10,000 out of the $3.1 million spent in Rhode Island EBT benefits are being taken out at ATMs in places where you can buy alcohol and tobacco; and $106 at a place where you can gamble. That amounts to 0.32% of all EBT funds. That’s a miniscule amount. And let’s be clear, these are completely legal ATMs that Rhode Islanders can use under Rhode Island and federal law. By 2014, those locations won’t be legal places and then we can say that 0.32% of EBT benefits are being withdrawn in illegal places. That hasn’t happened yet, and despite the area, there are still plenty of good reasons someone might take money out of an ATM at these places; such as convenience. Even the Twin River location could be explained as an employee using their card.
WPRI called these “questionable” places. Yes they are. But if we’re going to question this, we’ve got to hold up the mirror to ourselves. Has anyone ever charged their business for a “questionable” expense? To align with government assistance, what about that mortgage credit you received for buying a house? Have you bought any alcohol or tobacco since receiving it? Then you’ve used taxpayer dollars to pay for “questionable” expenses. That’s government money you got. What about that Social Security check your grandmother receives? She smoke or drink or gamble? Yes? All three, when she’s at Twin River? Turn her in to the Target 12 Investigators!
The difference between EBT and the mortgage credit and Social Security is that EBT goes to those who need it most. As Mssrs. White and McGowan point out, the maximum a family of four can earn is $1,438 a month and have less than $1000 in assets, not including a house or car. Left out of that is that the family of four is also living in Rhode Island. According the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to afford the “fair market rent” on a two bedroom apartment in Rhode Island and to spend no more than 30% of your income on it (thus making it “affordable”), you’d have to earn $3,081 a month.
There’s a word for stories headlined like the WPRI one. It’s “outrage porn” (the commenters on the story clearly were). And not even good outrage porn, since it found exactly zero cases of fraud. I understand the straits WPRI finds itself in. It needs to get those ratings up, and John DePetro seems to get a lot of mileage of SNAP… but come on, the “Heavy Hitter” getting disability from bankrupt Central Falls this is not.
If you want to be outraged, let’s talk about the butchery that was done to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children to turn it into TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) by the then-Republican Congress and then-President Bill Clinton. TANF doesn’t care about what the circumstances might be, you get a maximum of 60 months (5 years). So if you’ve say, been living in Rhode Island, attempting to make due since the recession started in Rhode Island (which was in 2006 for us, if you’ll remember) you ran out of TANF in 2008, because you didn’t find a job as the national economy worsened, and TANF requires that you find a job in 24 months (2 years) or your benefits are cut off (though states get the option to make the rules worse). Luckily though, TANF is only the callous part of the two programs that use EBT.
The other is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). SNAP beats every other program the government runs. Hands down, it is the best function of government we have. First, it feeds the hungry. Second, it never runs out because Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole made damn sure America would not be a country that allowed its people to starve to death. That’s the fundamental vision there: no one should starve to death in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But there’s other reasons to love SNAP.
SNAP is also an economic bellwether. If you’d been paying attention to enrollment in SNAP over the last 10 years (funny story, you probably weren’t), you would’ve seen immediately when Rhode Island entered the recession. It was in 2006 when suddenly SNAP enrollment leapt up incredibly. At the time, administrators believed it was because of the robust outreach program they had. Even if that is true, it should have been a warning that economic circumstances were far more dire then we acknowledged or realized. The state should’ve gone into full recession-fighting mode. But hindsight is 20/20.
SNAP is also an amazing program because it automatically scales back as people don’t need it anymore. Like a good budget, it spends during lean years and then saves during the fat years. But since the American budgeting process it back asswards (spend wildly during fat years and cut back during lean ones), what you saw was Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan pointing to the massive increase in the cost of SNAP and saying “we need to cut this, it’s expensive.” Yes, feeding hungry people can be a bit pricey. But you know what’s even more expensive? Burying people and their children. It costs a hell of a lot more than the average of $1,611.48 per year that we were spending on each of the 47.7 million Americans enrolled in SNAP in September 2012. That’s 15.2% of all Americans in 2012 in case you were wondering.
Likewise, we will waste more more in court proceedings and imprisonment then we will save by attempting to go after the potential of $120,000 in savings. We will destroy families, causing instability and poverty. And Rhode Island will bear the costs, for policing a federal program with overly zealous laws. To save the Feds money, cash-strapped Rhode Island will take on the costs, costs that will undoubtedly exceed $120,000. That’s practically state-sponsored masochism.
We punish the poor so that the well-off can point to their government budget and say “look, we’re cutting back, we’re tightening our belts.” Then they’ll buy some expensive clothes, get drunk at an expensive restaurant, hire a family member or buddy for a $40,000+ yearly salary and blow $75 million on a video game company run by a retired baseball player. But you know what, instead of dealing with that, let’s keep passing laws to make life harder for the working impoverished, homeless, and destitute. After all, they’re just trying to survive in the greatest country on the face of the Earth.