Benefits are for necessities

Legislation recently adopted by the New York State Senate entitled the “Public Assistance Integrity Act” would serve as a real deterrent in the fight against welfare fraud. Let me be very clear, this bill which I co-sponsored, is not directed at the needy families or individuals who receive some type of assistance and use it responsibly for necessities.

This bill is designed to crack down on welfare fraud and prohibit welfare recipients from using Cash Assistance for the purchase of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, lottery tickets or for casino gambling. The legislation would also prevent individuals receiving welfare from using their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to make ATM withdrawals from certain places, including liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.

Welfare recipients receive both Food Stamps and Cash Assistance, which are both frequently administered through the EBT debit card. Food Stamps have strict regulations on what can be purchased; Cash Assistance does not. Cash Assistance allows individuals to purchase essential items that cannot be obtained using Food Stamps – things like soap, toothpaste and school supplies. However, under the current framework, recipients can also use Cash Assistance to buy cigarettes and beer, or even to fund an afternoon at the race track or an evening at a local strip club.

Public assistance is meant to provide essentials for families and individuals in need. It is not a discretionary slush fund. While most people who receive this assistance use it for its intended purpose, there are others who abuse the system and they need to be stopped.

Legitimate expenses like housing, utilities, or necessities for children should be permitted through public assistance, paying for a booze-fueled night on the town should not. This commonsense legislation will end a practice I hear complaints about far too often, and provide some oversight that will help ensure that funding is available for those who truly need help making ends meet.

Along with curtailing the flagrant abuse of cash assistance and providing accountability, this legislation is also needed to make sure New York State continues to receive crucial federal funding.

The federal government has mandated that each state establish a system of fraud prevention by February 2014. If New York fails to comply, the state will forfeit $120 million in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds. The state budget is already extremely tight, and a loss of such magnitude would have consequences – a loss of services or higher taxes.

Paula Reid, welfare investigator for Washington County and an officer of the New York State Welfare Fraud Investigators Association is among those expressing support for the measure saying: “NYWFIA supports this bill because it increases the public’s confidence in the integrity of the social services programs offered to recipients. This bill will help in maintaining that integrity and working with those who use their benefits for their intended purpose.”

Another supporter, Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan said: “Recipients of assistance should not be permitted to spend their benefit money on illegal drugs, liquor, cigarettes or lap dances. Taxpayers expect their hard earned money to go for the necessities of people in need, and not to pay for someone to frolic around town. We owe the taxpayer more oversight and better accountability.”

New Yorkers are compassionate and want to help those in need provide for their families. What they don’t want is to see tax dollars spent for someone’s illegal drug habit, or to buy drinks at the corner bar. This commonsense measure would help stop abuse of our public assistance system and ensure that funds for people truly in need are not jeopardized.

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