When New Hampshire lawmakers recently approved their biennium budget, they also adopted some welfare restrictions with little fanfare.
While the restrictions on the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards may seem significant, enforcing them may be difficult — if not impossible.
As of Jan. 1., anyone caught spending their benefits on alcohol or at gambling and adult entertainment venues will face new penalties, according to Terry Smith, director of the New Hampshire Division of Family Assistance.
Congress passed the regulations last year and required all states to update their laws by 2014. That’s why the Legislature included the measure in the budget bill.
But the mandate didn’t come with any funding to prevent abuse of the benefits.
The EBT program has been widely criticized because some recipients used the money for items other than food. Recipients have been known to use the cards at ATMs to get cash that would be spent on unauthorized items, such as beer and cigarettes.
The Division of Family Assistance is notifying the 13,132 households that receive benefits about the penalties. They include 3,683 welfare recipients, 7,841 disabled people, 1,453 low-income elderly recipients and 155 low-income blind recipients, Smith said.
The average monthly cash benefit for a mother with two children is $486. The maximum monthly benefit the three-member household could receive is $606.
Anyone who violates the new law would be penalized a month’s worth of benefits, Smith said. A second violation would mean two months of benefits and subsequent violations would cost them three months of assistance.
These penalties are in addition to current restrictions that include a six-month loss of benefits for a first offense, a one-year loss of benefits for a second violation and ineligibility for a third offense, he said.
Smith said his office will enforce the restrictions the best it can, but it would be a challenge.