Friday morning House Speaker William O’Brien held a private press conference in his office vowing to put forward legislation that will prevent the misuse of public assistance funds distributed on EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards. At his side sat Jackie Whiton, former clerk of Big Apple Convenience Store in Peterborough, who gained media attention when she refused to sell cigarettes to a customer paying with EBT.
“When we see Shaw’s supermarket in Milford put out signs that say ‘use Your EBT Card to buy lobsters today,’ then we know there’s an attitude out there… breaking faith with taxpayers of New Hampshire,” O’Brien said.
Before EBT cards, needy families received a welfare check which they would cash, spending the money as they deemed appropriate. But printing, signing, and mailing those checks was expensive for the government, so it made sense to deliver money electronically, as credit and debit cards became more prevalent. Now, clerks and nearby shoppers can see the EBT card, and are privvy to what is being purchased with public funds.
Convenience store clerk Jackie Whiton’s outrage seems to resound not only with her fellow Granite Staters, but taxpaying individuals as far away as the U.K. “If people want to drink or smoke that’s fine, pay for it themselves,” she said, “I’m not going to stand there and watch people use taxpayers money when you got elderly people who can’t even afford to heat their homes.”
Terry Smith, the director of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services, says “it’s understandable that people in the community are concerned that money they provide to low income people is being used for appropriate purchases. Nobody, not even us at the department, wants to see taxpayer dollars spent for beer and cigarettes, that’s just not appropriate.”
Yet, Smith says, DHHS’s numbers suggest the problem is not as severe as people think. “We third-party verify with landlords what the cost of rent is, and what their income is,” Smith said. By doing that, the department knows that recipients of public funds are, on average, bringing in less than what they pay for rent and other bare necessities. In other words, the public tends to perceive things like this — and welfare fraud — as far worse than they actually are.
For O’Brien, however, anecdotes are enough to warrant legislative action. “There’s a buzz out there, it goes beyond one or two or a score of anecdotes coming to us now,” the speaker said. This past legislative session, both Massachusetts and New York State saw bills limiting what can and can’t be purchased with an EBT card.