At a political forum Monday in North Andover, four Republican legislators spoke of their frustration in trying to reform the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system in Massachusetts.
“These programs are out of control,” said state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, who has been a leader in the fight for EBT reform. “People who truly need help are going without.”
That’s what is truly puzzling. People who need and deserve public assistance, as well as the taxpayers who support such programs, are being ripped off by those who have figured out how easy it is to cheat the system.
So why does EBT fraud seem to be a front-burner concern only to the handful of Republicans the state manages to elect? Democrats, who claim to represent the interests of the poor, have made only half-hearted attempts at reform.
The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick doesn’t seem to care at all. Despite reports and audits revealing millions of dollars in losses through EBT fraud, Patrick dismisses individual incidents of theft as “anecdotes” and the overall losses in the program as “tolerable leakage.”
O’Connell told the meeting of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party that one-third of the state’s EBT recipients have questionable eligibility. One recipient had a balance of $12,000 on an EBT card, she said.
The Department of Transitional Assistance, which manages the EBT program, often fails to verify Social Security numbers. Citizenship is not verified either, O’Connell said.
Despite the obvious abuses, reform has been a struggle.
Last year, Patrick rejected much of a list of restrictions enacted by the Legislature on where EBT cards could be used. Patrick allowed bans on using the benefit cards for purchases at tattoo parlors and gun shops but vetoed restrictions on the purchases of jewelry or the services of nail shops.
“I’m not going to do anything that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits,” Patrick said.
The Legislature overrode Patrick’s vetoes. But these restrictions are largely moot as long as recipients can convert their benefits to cash at nearly any ATM machine. Once they have the cash, benefits recipients can buy virtually anything they want.
Nor has the Legislature done much to curb the sale of food benefits for cash. One reform passed this year will require ID photos on the EBT cards.
Whether these modest reforms will do anything to curb the fraud uncovered by the state auditor earlier this year is questionable. Among the abuses uncovered, Auditor Suzanne Bump found that over a 22 month period the state paid some $2.39 million in benefits to 1,164 dead people. The audit also found that the Department of Transitional Assistance maintained poor control over blank EBT cards, which could be used to produce fraudulent cards. The department could not account for 30,500 of the blank cards.
Public frustration with EBT card abuse continues. Just this week a Lawrence woman was arrested in Salem, N.H., and charged with stealing cans of crabmeat and steaks from two stores. She had in her possession an EBT card and a number of other cards under what police said was an assumed name.
Our political leaders are not giving benefits fraud the attention it deserves. Until the Legislature and the governor stop tip-toeing around the problem and take concrete action to stop it, taxpayers and those who legitimately need public support will continue to be ripped off.