Abused and misunderstood, EBT cards continue to polarize
The Electronic Benefits Transfer card, better known as the EBT card, is a way for people on two separate government programs to access money distributed to them by the government, but examples of misuse and a general lack of understanding about the cards has given these two programs a bad reputation.
EBT cards are used by people who are either receiving food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as TANF.
It’s a common misconception that people who use EBT cards have access to anything they might want to purchase. Susan Boatwright, the Department of Family and Children Services communications director for the state of Georgia, emphasized that food stamps and TANF are two very different programs with two separate sets of guidelines and requirements that must be met before receiving either benefit.
“For TANF, you must have a [dependent] child under the age of 18,” Boatwright said. “And the income limit for TANF is very different from food stamps limit. For example, for a family of four the annual income limits for TANF that would cut you off is just over $11,000. If you make over $11,000 you are not eligible for TANF.”
The eligibility for food stamps, however, is strictly income based.
“It’s a federally funded program that is essentially the same across the United States with some variations from state to state,” Boatwright said.
Mindy Wadley, a student at Georgia Regents University and a single mother, has been receiving food stamps for the better part of a year and explained the benefits of being able to use this type of assistance to help her and her daughter with every-day needs.
“When I stopped working I thought it would be good to have that as a little supplemental help,” Wadley said. “I went to the health department and they told me to go to the Department of Family and Children Services and I went there and they gave me a packet of information about it.”
Wadley said she went online to fill out the application for food stamps and then was contacted via phone for an interview about her application.
“I got my card in the mail and start receiving a monthly amount,” Wadley said. “At first it was a little bit more, and then I started working part time again so I had to tell them about the change in my income and then the amount that I was getting went down a little bit.”
Boatwright said that the way that food stamps are used makes it nearly impossible for clients to misuse those particular funds; however, that doesn’t stop some people from believing that the requirements on what people can buy should be tighter.
“Obviously there is never going to be a perfect system,” Wadley said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, when they are talking about people being on food stamps, that people shouldn’t be able to buy candy or junk food or whatever. Again, it’s like healthy choices are obviously more desirable, but you can’t really regulate stuff to that level. You have that food money to buy whatever food you want.”
Boatwright ensured that the Department of Family and Children Services does the best it can to promote healthy living and eating, but admitted there is only so much that can be done.
“We have several promotional items out and some information out to our customers and to our vendors as well, encouraging our customers to purchase nutritional items,” Boatwright explained. “The whole intent of the food stamps or SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] is that [it] adds nutritional value to the lives of children and their families. However, the guidelines say that any food item can be purchased with EBT. At the end of the day, if someone wanted to purchase a pack of crackers and a Mountain Dew at a gas station, as long as it was a food item, it would not get bounced back by the machine.”
Publix Super Markets are one of the many stores that accepts EBT cards. Spokesperson Brenda Reid explained the regulations the stores abide by and the process each store follows.
“First of all the state will say to us, these items are eligible these items are not,” Reid said. “We process that into our computer system so that anything that rings up that is not in the categories that are accepted by the state will ring up as a requirement to pay cash. So we don’t arbitrarily set and our associates cannot override a program in our system that says this item is not eligible.”
Both Reid and Boatwright explained that every store that has a machine that has EBT accessibility is set up to reject non-food items. Reid went on to say that Publix stores are very methodical. Even the food items are coded to ensure that food stamp benefits are used the right way.
“It is very detailed,” Reid said. “For example, we sell a lot of sub sandwiches. So when you go up to the deli you can order a hot sub or you can grab a cold one from the case. A hot so would not be eligible under the EBT guidelines whereas a cold one might be, so we would have to code the cold one differently.”
Although the restrictions for purchases for food stamps are strict, the TANF program has allowed for more leniency. In turn, the state has had to enforce harsher punishments for the misuse of these government funds to verify that the money distributed through the TANF program is used toward the right items.
“We are committed to ensuring that the funds that are issued from TANF go towards supporting the needs of Georgia children and the families,” Boatwright said. “We revised our TANF policy to make it an intentional program violation. That’s another word we use for fraud, so an EBT card is used to withdraw cash or to form any transactions at any of the locations that we’ve identified as inappropriate, then it counts as a fraud for the customer and there are penalties associate with that.”
According to Boatwright, the state of Georgia has some of the harshest penalties when it comes to TANF fraud. Since last May, when Georgia started cracking down on TANF fraud, Boatwright said that there has been an 85 percent decrease in the number of fraudulent cases. Penalties escalate from a six-month disqualification to a lifetime ban.
As of December of last year, food stamp benefits affected 1,969,534 individuals. The number of TANF benefits consisted of 4,792 adult cases and 13,811 child-only cases.
“A little known fact, there are not a lot of adult TANF cases anymore,” Boatwright said. “The adults have the work requirement, so we are trying to move those adults into the workforce as quickly as possible so that number stays relatively low.”
Boatwright admitted that there is no perfect system, but said that, at the state level, they try to do everything possible to make sure that government funds are going to the right people. And though there may be some people that try to take advantage of the programs, Boatwright said there are still many out there that still need the assistance.
“I’d rather be able to make money and pay for my own stuff,” Wadley said. “It’s just something that I felt like would be good since it’s out there. People who need help paying for their food or whatever, it’s there for that reason. So I wanted to take advantage of it.” You Might Also Like: