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Cash assistance: Always subject to abuse

September 18. 2013 12:43AM

If you think recipients of government assistance should be barred from using taxpayer money to finance sensory pleasures such as drinking, smoking and viewing sexually explicit material, a state audit released last Friday presents some bad news.

In the last fiscal year, the state distributed more than $23 million worth of cash assistance via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. Recipients used their EBT cards to take 78 percent of that $23 million in cash. On what did they spend that $18 million? Who knows? The state has no way of tracking it.

The state prevents EBT cards from being used at liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment venues. But the laws do not state why we offer the assistance. There is no statutory goal to it. The state simply gives low-income people cash and expects them to spend it intelligently.

Many taxpayers would like to see the state prevent the purchase of beer, tobacco, junk food and other indulgences via EBT cards. But as long as the state gives direct cash assistance, such a prohibition would be futile. Recipients can receive deposits directly into their bank accounts, or they can use EBT cards to withdraw cash from ATMs — with no restrictions.

Private charities have ways around this problem. Many offer non-cash assistance such as job training, food and below-market rental units. They learned decades ago that handing out cash was unwise. But government-based public assistance will always favor cash payments. It is easier. And politicians prefer to portray all recipients of charity as average folks down on their luck, never hard cases who have addiction or mental health issues that cannot be fixed by ready infusions of money.

The state cannot effectively monitor a bureaucracy that distributes cash to thousands of recipients. Such a system will always be abused. A better way would be to support private charities that teach people how to live independently. If, that is, independence is the goal of state assistance.

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