By Doug Ireland
---- — 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.
Methods of tracking card use are limited and there is no way of preventing cash received at ATMs from being used for unauthorized items. Store owners must notify the state if they see infractions, he said.
“Enforcement will be a matter of accidental observation since there is no technology and way to monitor,” he said.
State lawmakers agree abuse of EBT cards is a problem. Although some said they hope the new restrictions will reduce abuse, they realize there is virtually no way to enforce them.
One of the program’s biggest critics is former House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon.
He called for the state to adopt tougher restrictions last year after a Peterborough convenience store employee was fired for refusing to let a customer buy cigarettes with his EBT card.
O’Brien said the cards should not be used at ATMs. He called for even tighter restrictions last month.
Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston, agrees ATM access must be prohibited.
“I’m hoping that the DHHS will be very astute at looking where the bills come from,” he said. “But if they still allow a generous cash withdrawal, we will still see the abuses.”
Rep. Kevin Waterhouse, R-Windham, another proponent of EBT reform, is optimistic.
“It is not going to be as abusive as it was before and that’s what we were looking for,” he said.
Waterhouse, owner of Waterhouse Country Store in Windham, said he and other store owners in the Legislature have wanted tighter restrictions.
He said EBT cards aren’t accepted at his country store because there are few items welfare recipients could buy.
Enforcement of the regulations will still be difficult, he said.
“I’m hoping they are going to put restrictions on where and how they can be used,” Waterhouse said.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, praised the regulations.
“It’s a no-brainer — taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars should not be abused,” he said. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let (EBT cards) be used for cash and they would have a picture on it like a license.”