WOONSOCKET – Advocates for the poor are casting a wary eye across the border as the Massachusetts legislature backed a requirement for photo identification on electronic benefit transfer cards used by welfare recipients, but others say Rhode Island should follow suit.
“I would be a hundred percent in favor of that,” said Terrence Gorman of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Enforcement, who contends the state’s welfare benefits are a magnet for illegal aliens.
“I don’t know why something like that hasn’t been done already,” he said. “We all know that fraud has been going on for years and years and years.”
But Kate Brewster, executive director of the non-profit Economic Progress Institute in Providence, says a photo ID requirement on EBT cards is a fool’s errand. The cost of implementing such a program would probably exceed the amount of fraud it eliminates, and it’s probably against the law, she said.
“It’s an expensive measure to implement and we believe we should be spending money on meaningful job training and case management, not running around trying to resolve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
The Massachusetts legislature approved the proposal on July 1 after the release of a study that echoed the infamous Block Report commissioned by Governor Lincoln Chafee earlier this year. While Massachusetts uncovered reports of EBT cards being used to pay for tattoos and post bail money, the Ocean State version found EBT cards in the names of prisoners in state custody and individuals who were deceased.
The fate of Massachusetts’ proposal now rests in the hands of Gov. Deval Patrick, who says he’s open to the idea of EBT reform.
If the measure is signed into law by the governor, Massachusetts would become the only state in the nation to require photo IDs on EBT cards, which are much like debit cards for welfare recipients. They’re pre-loaded with welfare and food stamp allotments that beneficiaries can use to transfer funds to vendors electronically at the point of sale.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, has already warned legislators to be careful in crafting a photo ID requirement for EBT users.
Federal rules prohibit vendors from treating beneficiaries covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) differently than anyone else who pays with a debit card or some other kind of plastic, Regional USDA Administrator James C. Arena-DeRosa informed the Department of Transitional Assistance earlier this year.
“Asking only SNAP clients, and not all customers, to provide identification at the point of purchase conflicts with federal regulations...” he said.
States requiring photos on each EBT card should consider the cost of having the necessary equipment in every office, increased visits to local offices, and the additional state and local staff that would be required to administer the program, he said.
Arena-DeRosa and other detractors of photo ID say the national fraud rate on SNAP is believed to be about 1 percent of benefits, with another 4 percent of misapplied funds attributed to “payment error.”
Some states have concluded that trying to cut fraud with a photo ID requirement just isn’t worth it. The National Association of Social Workers says Pennsylvania determined that photo ID cards would cost about $8 each to produce, compared to 23 cents for a card with a magnetic strip.
Costs for implementing the program have ranged from $2 million in Michigan to $17.6 million in Washington State. New York State recently abandoned a photo ID initiative and “finger imaging” for cash assistance recipients as “both costly and not effective,” the organization says.
Rebekah Gerwitz, director of government relations for the Boston chapter of NASW, says that, depending on how the law is crafted, photo EBTs could hurt the most vulnerable members of society.
“It’s a major concern,” she says. “We’re talking about people we want to have access to the programs. We’re talking about people are very old or disabled. The law could make it impossible for them to buy groceries.”
Massachusetts lawmakers say they have addressed those concerns by exempting the elderly and disabled from the photo requirement. Otherwise, the legislative proposal would apply to anyone over 18.
The measure was attached to a supplemental spending bill for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The Massachusetts House and Senate approved the bill on unanimous votes.
“It’s not my position to hurt poor people, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Associated Press several days ago. “That’s not what this is about. What this is about is to stamp out fraud and abuse.”
If Patrick signs the measure into law, he’d be reversing a precedent established by former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2004. Romney’s Republican administration quashed the idea of photos when the cards were first introduced after concluding that the benefits did not justify the costs of the program.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo